SIMSBURY – Last Saturday, those interested in Connecticut high school hockey had their eyes set on an important Division I game in the northern part of the state: Undefeated Northwest Catholic was playing host to New Canaan, an FCIAC school from the south.
“They always talk about the Southern teams, Fairfield Prep, Hamden, all down there,” Northwest Catholic senior defenseman Tyler Esposito said. “They don’t really talk about us because we have to play our CCC schedule.”
The Lions indeed opened with a ton of CCC teams, only one of which played in Division I, the state’s strongest playoff classification. They were 5-0 heading into the game, while New Canaan made the trip with a 3-3 record, with all their games coming against top division foes.
“I think teams might just think we are the team from the North,” Northwest Catholic senior goalie Michael Kaliff said. “But I think at the same time, we do get some respect in the same regard. It’s weird.”
The stereotype against the Lions is not unfounded.
Since the Lions moved up to Division I six seasons ago, they have been ousted from the state tournament in the first round three times and in the second round once. The other time, the Lions reached the Division I final in 2017, losing to Ridgefield, 6-2.
Only twice in state championship history, since 1948 — when the CIAC started hosting state championship in hockey — has a team in the north part of the state won a Division I state championship.
Enfield beat Notre Dame-West Haven, 5-4, in 1983 and in 2003 Simsbury beat Hamden, 3-2.
Heading into the New Canaan game, the Lions were ranked No. 3 in the previous two GameTimeCT polls.
Both in the second and third periods, New Canaan took the lead. Each time, Northwest Catholic tied it up.
“It was good to see,” Northwest Catholic coach Dan Melanson said. “They fought adversity. We went down a goal, within two minutes we tied it up. We went down a goal again, within two minutes we’re back tied up again.”
— NWC Athletics (@NWC_athletics) January 5, 2019
It took 15 seconds into overtime to not only send the Lions home a 3-2 winner on a Nick Salcedo goal but, it also sent a message that the boys from the North might be for real.
“It was really important for us to make a statement like that to show that we can play with the stronger teams down South for sure,” Northwest Catholic junior Brennan Horn said. “Not just getting our wins against easier opponents – such as the Division II teams we have played earlier – so it was good for us to get on the map like that.”
The underdog, no-one-respects-us mentality is something that permeates in the Lions’ locker room and is something the team uses as motivation.
“It’s a constant thing in the locker room, trying to prove people wrong,” senior defenseman Sean Macary said. “Whether it’s people on the ice or people off the ice.”
The overtime victory have the Lions believing they can play with anyone.
“It was very crucial to get a statement win out there, saying that we can keep up with these bigger teams and we can beat them,” senior forward Colby Tuttle said. “Because people have been questioning our abilities when we are playing D2 teams and conference teams – who may not be as strong as the Southern teams. It just proves that we are just as good as those teams.”
Led by Horn’s 18 points (nine goals, nine assists), as well as Salcedo (13 points) and Tuttle (12 points) the offense for the Lions is in good hands, to go along with a ton of other talented players filling in the stat sheet.
Defensively, the Lions have two mainstays in Macary and Esposito – both who saw top four minutes as sophomores on the championship game team – holding down the backend.
The Lions, now 6-0-1 after a 3-3 tie with Glastonbury on Wednesday, have a chance to prove how good they are twice in the next week.
They play No. 5 Notre Dame-West Haven (4-4) on Saturday and No. 6 Greenwich (2-1-2) on Wednesday.
“It should be a good test, but being able to beat New Canaan going into this next week was a good start,” Salcedo said.
A good start indeed for a team that plans on playing at Ingalls Rink in March.
“We can be a team that is going to be successful at the end,” Melanson said. “We have a chance to hopefully make it to Yale.”