There’s plenty of talent throughout the New Canaan boys ice hockey roster this season. But despite the skill-level, along with an impressive eight wins in the first nine games, the Rams just couldn’t seem to get any respect.
Count coach Clark Jones among the those who were waiting to see more.
“To be honest, I was probably one of those people,” Jone said. “I didn’t think we were great in any of our games. There were moments in time that we were great, but we didn’t really play a complete game. The Ridgefield game was closer to that.”
The “Ridgefield game” has indeed opened some eyes to the Rams’ potential as they shut out the three-time defending FCIAC champion Tigers, 2-0, Friday night at The Winter Garden, a notoriously difficult place to play for visiting teams.
No. 4 New Canaan, which scored its first victory against the No. 6 Tigers since 2016, remained unbeaten in the FCIAC with a 4-0 conference mark, and moved into second place behind Notre Dame-West Haven in the state’s Div. I standings.
They also moved up a few rungs on the ladder of respect.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in us even with our 8-1 record,” senior co-captain Justin Wietfeldt said. “This shows what we can do. People will look at us differently now that we beat Ridgefield, which is a great team.”
One of the key architects of New Canaan’s great first half is freshman goalie Beau Johnson, who had his best game of the season when he racked up 34 saves to lead a great defensive effort against Ridgefield.
The younger brother of junior forward Jack Johnson, Beau has made a seamless transition to varsity play after having a stellar fall with the Mid-Fairfield U15 squad.
“They’ve totally embraced him,” Jones said. “These guys have all known Beau for a long time, so they know how good he is. He’s won everywhere he’s gone.
“He played with the Mid-Fairfield U15 team which put him against some of the best teams in the country. He performed unbelievably well. That was the point in time when everybody started to ask ‘who is this kid?’ ”
Johnson’s play has also added to the confidence of an already strong defensive unit, which is led by senior co-captains Wietfeldt, Eric Wills and Bennett Ong. Juniors Gavin Reid and Matty Panella have also stepped up, with Alexander Sotirhos and Luc Lampert making an impact as freshmen.
“When he came in, everybody was saying ‘oh, you guys have a freshman goalie,’ and they questioned that,” Wietfeldt said. “But he’s been just phenomenal. He’s always rock solid and he’s ready mentally for every game. He’s just a great component.
The group, which has had some stumbles this year, has allowed more than one goal just once in the past five games, and seems to be settling into a groove.
“Our defense came out to play (against Ridgefield),” Johnson said. “We just wanted to lock them down on the D end, and that’s why there’s a zero on the scoreboard. We mostly wanted to get that win, but it’s extra sweet to out that zero on the board.”
It’s part of upward trend for New Canaan, which has an eight-game winning streak since a 4-2 loss to Hamden on Dec. 18. That run includes victories over traditional DI contenders Notre Dame-Fairfield (3-2 OT) and Northwest Catholic (5-1) as well as a win during a long road trip against Rhode Island power Prout (5-2).
According to Jones, it’s a matter of the Rams now making the right decisions in terms of when to take chances, and when to rein things in.
“Everybody on defense and offense knows the way we want to play and everybody’s just growing and maturing,” Jones said. “There’s a way we want them to play in terms of risk-reward and when to take those risks. With all of the skills and ability to execute, they’re starting to put it all together.”
Still, as Jones pointed out, even with Friday’s victory, there’s still a lot of work ahead for the Rams, who host No. 5 Xavier on Wednesday, and in February will face off against No. 1 Darien, No. 9 Simsbury, and No. 7 Greenwich, play Xavier a second time, and take on Trumbull and Westhill/Stamford, a pair of Div. II contenders.
How they fare in those games will determine how much more respect New Canaan will gain down the stretch.
“There’s still a lot to prove,” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to sort through to show that we belong in the conversation. The Ridgefield game was a good step because they felt what it feels like to play a more complete game, but the real test will be to show that we can do it consistently every time we get out there.”