DARIEN — New Canaan’s Rich Bulan reached a coaching milestone with his 500th career victory on Monday night.
Few of the first 499 could have been much wilder.
Kaleigh Harden whipped in a goal to the top left corner with 6:24 remaining as New Canaan held off West Haven/SHA 6-5 in a battle of state girls hockey contenders at the Darien Ice House.
Harden’s goal, her third of the game, came just 11 seconds after Brooke McNabola, who scored twice, had tied the game for West Haven/SHA. West Haven/SHA had rallied from a two-goal deficit to start the third period.
“Crazy game,” Bulan said with a smile. “You can tell why they’re undefeated. Those first two lines can move the puck and they’ve got a solid defense, so luckily we scored more than they did. Do I wish it was a cleaner game? Yes, but a win’s a win. Let’s walk away and go from here.”
Bulan now has 365 career wins for New Canaan (9-3-1), after earning 135 wins as the coach of the Westhill boys hockey team.
For West Haven/SHA (9-1), the loss was the first of the winter.
“Win or lose, this is one of the better games we’ve played all season from start to finish,” West Haven/SHA coach Erin Blake said. “We really wanted it, they played their hearts out and they left it all out there. Rich’s teams are always great and we gave them a run for their money.”
The game also featured a milestone for West Haven/SHA senior forward Taylor Nowak, who scored her 100th career goal in the first period. That goal came with 2:06 remaining in the frame, and cut New Canaan’s lead to 2-1 at the time.
“I was at 99 and in my last game, I tried my hardest to get the 100th goal and I couldn’t do it,” Nowak said. “I think I jinxed myself thinking about it a little too much, so I came into the game staying clear-headed and looking for the win.”
The first lines of both teams delivered eye-popping stats and were on the ice for all of the scoring.
Nowak and linemates Megan Froehlich and Jianna Cohrs each scored once and Nowak and Froelich each assisted on goals by defender Brooke McNabola. Froehlich collected three assists overall.
“We’ve played together for the past three or four years, so we just know where each other are on the ice,” Nowak said. “Having been playing with them for a long time really helps.”
For New Canaan, the line of Kaleigh Harden, Courtney O’Connell and Maddie Kloud also had a great night. Kaleigh Harden had a hat trick with two assists, O’Connell scored twice and had one assists, and Kloud had two assists, one of which came when she set up defender McKenna Harden.
“The first line had a night and a half,” Bulan said. “Those goals were huge. It was take a lead, give it up, take a lead, give it up, and then at the end it was take a lead, hold it. I’ll take that trend.”
The Rams had taken a 2-0 lead in the first period when O’Connell and Kaleigh Harden found the net. Nowak’s goal then cut it to 2-1.
McNabola went top shelf to tie the score at 2-2 just 3:27 into the second period.
The two teams then combined to scored four goals in a span of less than three minutes.
Cohrs knocked a loose puck past New Canaan goalie Blythe Novick (23 saves) to give West Haven/SHA its only lead at 3-2 with 7:08 remaining in the second frame. The Rams answered with three straight goals.
Kaleigh Harden scored 30 seconds after Cohrs’ goal to equalize, and O’Connell and McKenna Harden then scored put New Canaan up, 5-3, a margin the Rams carried into the third period.
Froehlich opened the scoring in the third period, and McNabola then tied it with 6:35 remaining.
During the action leading to McNabola’s goal, New Canaan defender McKenna Harden hit the ice and had to leave the game with an injury.
“It was back and forth the whole game and every shift, we just went back out there and said we needed to score a goal,” Kaleigh Harden said. “When McKenna fell, I went back out there and said to everyone, we are not losing this game. We needed this.”
New Canaan won the ensuing faceoff, and Kloud got the puck to Kaleigh Harden, who skated into the zone and fired the puck high past goalie Hailey Alfano (18 saves) for the go-ahead goal. The play took 11 seconds.
“I kind of just shot it,” Kaleigh Harden said. “They hurt my sister and I went back out there like ‘I’m getting a goal’.”
West Haven/SHA kept pressure on the Rams’ defense for the final six minutes, but New Canaan held on for the win.
Despite the loss, Blake said her team showed a lot.
“They fought till the end,” Blake said. “It’s our first loss of the season so it’s a long ride home, but I’m proud of the way they played.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Kaleigh Harden, New Canaan. Harden had five points with a hat trick and two assists, but more importantly, she twice responded to West Haven/SHA goals, putting the Rams back in front each time.
“I’ve been fortunate to do 200, 300, 400 and now 500 in New Canaan. Honestly, I’d have it no other way. This has been nothing but great — great kids, great parents, great support throughout the school and the community. This is like a dream come true and it’s added years to my coaching life.” — New Canaan coach Rich Bulan on his 500th career win.