WEST HAVEN — The North Haven hockey team has plenty of big-game players. Andrew Sacco has won a state title with Lyman Hall in 2019, and Jake Hines and Aaron Racino have continually been clutch.
With a chance to win the program’s first league tournament title, the trio was not going to be denied.
Behind 20 saves from Sacco, and a goal and two assists apiece from Hines and Racino, third-seeded North Haven topped fifth-seeded Cheshire 3-0 in the Southern Connecticut Conference / South West Conference Division II championship at the Edward L. Bennett Rink in West Haven on Saturday.
The SCC title was the first for North Haven, while the Rams lost in their first appearance in the finals since 2016.
“It is such a credit to the kids,” North Haven coach Chris Avena said. “They work so hard especially in this tough year. They are a great group. It really feels great to get this.”
Trailing by a pair of goals, Cheshire put the pressure on to start the final 15 minutes. Unfortunately for the Rams, they could not get anything by North Haven goaltender Andrew Sacco, who finished with 20 saves in the game, six in the third period.
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“They put the pressure on in the third and I said to myself they were coming out hot,” Sacco said. “They were not going away easily. Jake (Hines) scored that goal and I think it took the wind out of them.
“Call me cocky, call me whatever you want. I’m a winner and my team wins. We don’t lose.”
Sacco came up big early in the third by denying Thor Novicelli from the slot and another by Novicelli with a great pad save with 9:49 to go.
With Sacco more than doing his part, North Haven put the game away with 8 minutes, 59 seconds remaining as Hines and Racino combined on the scoring for the third time in the game. This time, Racino found Hines, who beat Cheshire goaltender Amaan Chaudhry for a 3-0 lead.
“This is amazing,” Hines said. “There is nothing better than to do this with this group of guys. It is such a brotherhood. It is great to get it with this team.”
North Haven (8-2) took a 2-0 lead with a pair of late goals in the second period. Hines and Racino were a part of each tally. The team got on the board first when Hines found Racino in the slot and the senior wasted no time beating Chaudhry to the top left corner with 3:04 left in the middle period. It maintained the pressure and were rewarded with a power play with less than a minute to go in the period. North Haven needed just 33 seconds to capitalize when Hines found junior Justin Pniewski flying to the slot area where he beat Chaudhry with six seconds remaining in the period for a 2-0 advantage. Racino also assisted on the goal.
“North Haven is a really good team,” Cheshire coach Anthony Giusto said. “I thought we hung in there in the first period and even in the second. We had a lot of good chances. When they got that first goal, it made it tougher on us. Down two, it was a much deeper mountain to climb.”
The two teams picked up the pace of the game late in the opening period when each goaltender was forced to come up big to keep the game scoreless.
Cheshire (5-6) had three quality chances, but Sacco denied Damon Zurolo in front with a pad save four minutes in, denied Michael Caron from the right faceoff circle with a glove save with 1:30 to go, then turned aside Aidan Gaudet in front with a pad saves in the final seconds of the opening period.
“When you have Andrew Sacco in net, it certainly makes your heart beat a little better,” Avena said.
North Haven had its chances as well, with the best opportunities coming in the final six minutes of the period. Chaudhry (20 saves) stopped Racino and Will Sullivan on the left wing two minutes apart, and stopped a hard shot from Michael Anquillare with a pad save with one minute to go in the period.
Players of the Game
Jake Hines and Aaron Racino — North Haven forwards each finished with a goal and two assists in the victory, and each had two points in the second period when the North Haven took a 2-0 lead.
“That definitely fueled us. We did not want that feeling again. That definitely sparked us.”
— North Haven’s Jake Hines on losing in last year’s SCC Division II title game