When New Canaan won FCIAC and state championships last winter, it may have seemed like a familiar sight. In reality, it hadn’t happened in a while for the Rams, who had last won a conference title in 2012, and last took the state crown in 2013.
The Rams are once again among the contenders for both titles. They begin the FCIAC tournament as the No. 1 seed and are No. 4 in the state standings, meaning they’ll have a first-round bye into the CHSGHA quarterfinals.
While talent can carry a team far at this time of the year, coach Rich Bulan said there’s an even bigger factor which can mean the difference between an early exit and a championship.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that you’ve just got to outwork everybody,” Bulan said. “All these teams are so talented now. It’s not like back in the day when you had a first-round game that you could just get by, now everybody’s got a goaltender, everybody’s talented, and everybody can skate. If you don’t work harder than the other team you’ll have a rough night.”
For New Canaan (13-5-2), the last week of the regular season was a great launching pad into the playoffs.
The Rams scored three consecutive shutouts, beating Rhode Island power La Salle Academy 2-0, playing to a scoreless tie with first-place Simsbury, and then blanking Conard/Hall 2-0. That’s 143 minutes without a goal allowed, a testament to the strong play of the defense, including All-State goalie Blythe Novick, and defenders Harden, Sophie Potter, Alla Duane and Amanda Benson.
As opposed to last winter when the season was relatively smooth from start to finish, this year has featured plenty of bumps in the form of injuries and illnesses.
Among the injured were McKenna Harden, New Canaan’s top returning defender who missed the early part of the season, and All-FCIAC first team forward Grace Crowell, who returned later in the campaign.
“We weren’t even healthy on opening day,” Bulan said. “Now, Grace looks better than ever and McKenna has been getting stronger and stronger. We’re healthy and we have everything back in order.”
New Canaan was hit with illnesses as well, with several Rams missing games or playing at less than 100%.
Adversity can help a team in the long run, however, and Bulan said the Rams learned a lot about themselves.
“One of the things I’ve been very proud of this year is with the injuries, the sickness, who’s out for the year, and here we are still,” Bulan said. “We’re fighting and we finished this last week so strong. We didn’t give up a goal in the last week of the season and we were really skating.”
As the defending champions in both the FCIAC and state tournaments, the Rams will have a target on their backs. But they’re not looking at it as a bid for two straight championships, instead focusing on this year’s team and the next game.
“We honestly have not even discussed that,” Bulan said. “We try and put everything in perspective and focus on whatever’s in front of us. From here on in, it’s just another game we have to win or go home.
“We just need to play hard, play our game, and see what happens.”
SIMSBURY VS. AVON FOR CCC CROWN
The Central Connecticut Conference will crown its first girls ice hockey champion when top-seeded Simsbury faces off with No. 3 Avon/Southington/RHAM/Newington/Lewis Mills/Wethersfield at 8:40 p.m., Friday, at Trinity College.
The Avon co-op advanced with a 5-1 win over No. 2 Suffield in the semifinals on Monday, while Simsbury shut out East Catholic/Glastonbury/South Windsor (ETB) 3-0 on Tuesday.
The CCC took over what was previously the SCC North Division, which was won by Simsbury last winter. The Trojans defeated Hall/Conard 2-0 in the championship game.
Simsbury has been nothing short of dominant this season, going 17-1-2 and earning the top seeds in the CCC and state tournaments. The Trojans have outscored their opponents 86-26, and have allowed more than two goals in a game just twice: First in a 3-1 loss to Darien and then in a 7-4 win over West Haven/SHA.
Outside of a three-game stretch where the Trojans went 1-1-1, losing to Darien, tying Greenwich and beating Suffield, they’ve been nearly untouchable. Simsbury is 8-0-1 in its last nine games with the one tie being a scoreless duel against New Canaan.
Simsbury also beat it’s CCC final opponent twice, topping Avon 4-0 on Dec. 13 and 6-1 on Jan. 15.
Avon had made a huge leap forward this season after finishing 8-11 and missing the playoffs last year. It’s now 13-6-1 and has won eight of the last 10 games, with the two losses coming in overtime.
Avon was impressive in its semifinal victory against Suffield, taking a 3-1 lead in the first period and adding two goals in the second. Jordan Hopping had a hat trick, Shelby Little and Kori Bartko each scored a goal, and Sarah Murphy and Nicole Partridge scored two apiece.
WESTIE SHARKS, DRAGONS VICTORIOUS
The West Haven/SHA and Hamden co-ops picked up victories in the opening round of the SCC tournament on Monday, with West Haven/SHA blanking Daniel Hand 7-0, and Hamden topping Notre Dame-Fairfield 3-1.
Forward Demeri Caranagelo and goalie Katie Shapland led Hamden, as Caranagelo scored once and assisted twice, and Shapland racked up 37 saves. Tania Cruz and Katie Gould also scored for the Dragons.
West Haven/SHA left nothing to chance against Daniel Hand, scoring five goals in the first period and rolling to the seven-goal margin.
Jenna Hunt had a hat trick, Jianna Cohrs had a goal and two assists, and Taylor Nowak, Mia Celentano, and Chase Ireland also scored.
The top two seeds in the SCC tournament are No. 1 Amity co-op and No. 2 Guilford, and each had a bye in the first round.
The SCC championship game will begin at 1 p.m., Saturday, at Bennett Rink in West Haven.
The CHSGHA tournament seedings are now set and the top four teams are the same as they’ve been since the start of season.
No. 1 Simsbury, No. 2 Darien, No. 3 Greenwich and No. 4 New Canaan have earned first-round byes for the playoffs, which will be held on March 2 and 3.
The quarterfinals are set for Saturday, March 7, with the top four seeds hosting.
The tournament then heads to neutral sites, with the semifinals at The Rinks at Shelton on Tuesday, March 10, and the championship game at Bennett Rink in West Haven at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 12.