WEST HAVEN — It had been six long years since the New Canaan girls ice hockey team had last won a state championship.
So as the last few seconds ticked off the clock in the Rams’ 3-1 win over rival Darien in the CHSGHA state final on Saturday, the emotions started to rise to the surface.
“The last three seconds we put in the seniors and I was already crying,” senior co-captain Katelyn Sparks said. “Then there was another whistle with one second left and we were just waiting for that moment. It feels so good and it could not be better, playing Darien in a state championship, beating your rival. I’ve played with these girls my entire life and there literally could not be a better feeling.”
New Canaan stayed true to form as the No. 1 seed, building a three-goal lead in the first two periods and then holding off No. 3 Darien for the two-goal victory at Bennett Rink in West Haven.
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It was the seventh state championship overall for the Rams (22-1-2) and their first since 2013, while the Blue Wave (17-5-1) had its three-year reign as champs come to an end.
“It’s special and I love it,” New Canaan head coach Rich Bulan said. “This program has been family and always will be family. These girls will do whatever they have to do to succeed and here’s the end result today. All the work, all the skating, all the practice — when you walk away with a championship like this, it’s special. I think this is my favorite one.”
Darien was denied an unprecedented state championship four-peat, ending its run of three straight titles, which matches New Canaan’s run from 2006-2008 as the longest in tournament history.
“We started out a little slow, there were a couple of bounces that went their way and not our way, and that’s it,” Darien head coach Jamie Tropsa said. “They’re a great team, very well-coached, and they do a great job. Next year, hopefully, it will be back to us.”
New Canaan’s sophomore goalie Blythe Novick was named the MVP of the tournament after making 21 saves, 10 of which came in the third period as the Wave stepped up the pressure. She was aided by strong play from defensemen Jess Eccleston, Sparks, and sophomores McKenna Harden and Sadie Frame.
“Blythe was so good,” Eccleston, a senior co-captain, said. “Blythe is so calm under pressure, no matter what game. She always does a fantastic job.”
“She kept us in it early against Simsbury, and when we were under pressure in the third period today, she came up big again,” Bulan said of Novick. “She’s focused and that’s why she’s been All-State two years in a row. The girl rises and does a great job in pressure situations. It’s tough being a goaltender, but she’s got the perfect temperament for it.”
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New Canaan sophomore Anika Curri scored the only goal of the first period when she cleaned up a rebound off the right pipe during a power play at 7:09. Freshman Kaleigh Harden assisted on the goal.
“In the locker room, we talked about how we had a great first period but we had to work on getting better every time we stepped on the ice,” Eccleston said. “That’s what we did in the second period when we scored two goals.”
Two freshmen scored those goals in the second stanza. Grace Crowell unleashed a rocket into the top right corner after taking a pass from Sparks at 1:20, and Harden then scored during a scramble at 7:25 to make it 3-0.
“We had talked about coming out slow against Simsbury (in the semis) and, what I love about this group is, they took that to heart,” Bulan said. “We went right at them. Then we scored and we kept it going, didn’t let them back in and built up a lead before they finally scored.”
The Blue Wave didn’t pack it in, and turned up the heat in the third period. Early shots by junior co-captain Cate Droogan and sophomores Lucie Edwards and Catherine Martin were all blocked by Novick, but Droogan finally broke the ice when she scored unassisted with 10:40 remaining.
The Wave maintained that pressure with their best period, but couldn’t narrow the gap any further.
“That was the key to the game — that energy came a little bit too late,” Tropsa said. “We started playing and taking chances rather than playing with — I don’t like to say fear or panic, but it might have been a little bit of that. Our feet just weren’t moving in the first two periods.”
For New Canaan, which had a young roster this year, claiming FCIAC and state championships seemed a long way off when the season started.
“You go into training camp, you look at what you’ve got and you realize you’ve got some pretty good players,” Bulan said. “But because of the youth and the mistakes that sometimes come with that — are they’re going to be intimidated with 14-year-old kids playing against 18-year-olds. None of that transpired. They were tough, they were resilient, they were mature, they blended in well with the upperclassmen and the upperclassmen love them.”
Asked what her message to the Rams’ rising stars was, Eccleston was quick to answer.
“Keep it going,” she said. “They got their feet underneath them this year and they know how it works now. I want them to be able to teach that to the people coming up as well.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Blythe Novick, New Canaan. Novick, the Rams’ sophomore goalie, earned MVP honors after making 21 saves in the championship game. She was at her best under pressure in the third period, stopping 10 of 11 Darien shots to seal up the title for New Canaan
“We play best when we’re happy and today, we weren’t scared at all. We were fearless from the first whistle. The energy came from us being so calm about this game. It was just another game for us, so we played the way we know we can.” — New Canaan senior co-captain Katelyn Sparks