MILFORD — Ever since it started the year with eight straight losses, Newtown’s boys hockey team has talked about climbing the mountain. Tuesday night, it found itself up on a ridge, for a while.
The Nighthawks won nine out of the last 11 to qualify for the CIAC Division III tournament. And in Tuesday’s SCC/SWC Division III semifinals at Milford Ice Arena, they built a quick three-goal lead on top-seeded Sheehan in a game most figured to be an easy Titans victory.
The scare didn’t last all night; Sheehan came back with four in the second and three in the third to beat Newtown 8-4 in its quest for a third straight conference championship.
Phil Makris scored the first three goals of the game and added a fourth in the second period to tie the game for Newtown. But Joe Romano and Luke Festa had four points apiece for the Titans.
“We didn’t come out and play like we could’ve and jumped on them. You saw No. 6 (Makris) took control of the game,” said Festa, who was noticeably upset going off the ice after the first period, down 3-1.
“(We were) just discussing in the locker room that if we don’t win, we don’t play on Friday and go back to back to back.”
The Titans (17-3-1), top seed in the tournament, will play Friday night at 8 at Bennett Rink against third-seeded New Milford (14-6-1) in the final. The Green Wave beat Milford 4-2.
— Michael Fornabaio (@fornabaioctp) March 4, 2020
Newtown is 9-12, awaiting the state tournament.
“It’s a great locker room, great kids. I’m very proud of them,” Newtown coach Paul Esposito said. “When we had that 0-8 stretch at the beginning of the season, there was never any negativity. They just kept buying in.”
Markus Paltauf made big saves for Newtown all night, 54 in all, some spectacular, all keeping it closer than the regular-season matchup, an 11-3 Titans victory.
And Makris made a few nice moves to score two goals in the first six minutes. Four minutes after that he backed in a Sheehan defender, got around him and finished a natural hat trick in 10:27.
“We just needed to reset. We knew we came out flat,” Sheehan coach Dave Festa said. “We were back on our heels, and they took advantage of it. Makris had a spring in his step and was able to turn a couple of our guys.”
Sheehan was playing too individually in the first, Luke Festa said, and they shook that in the second. Joe Romano’s first goal of three made it a one-goal game early in the period. Anthony Romano and Luke Festa scored 32 seconds apart to take Sheehan’s first lead.
And though a Makris power-play goal tied it again with 2:11 left, Joe Romano’s second restored the lead in the last minute.
“We were coming in with a very defensive game plan. We have a great goalie. We’re going to play to our strengths and look for our small opportunities,” Esposito said.
“When we’re up 3-0, we’re not epecting that. We’re like ‘wow, our game plan’s working.’ We got away from that a little in the second period.”
PLAYERS OF THE (FIRST) GAME
This game became fascinating because Phil Makris scored three goals in the first 10:27 and added another in the third. It stayed a game through a Sheehan onslaught because of Newtown goalie Markus Paltauf.
PLAYER OF THE (SECOND) GAME
New Milford’s Logan Maciel was in on two goals in the second period and was aggressive on the penalty kill.
IN THE NIGHTCAP
New Milford’s Ian Donahue deflected in defenseman Quinn Danvers’ right-point shot with 6:55 left, the difference in the Green Wave’s win. Defenseman Steven Sanford added an empty-netter.
“We had a great effort out of Quinn Danvers playing defense, a sophomore,” coach Scott Capriglione said. He’s one of three sophomores on defense, with Sean Donahue, “a senior, the glue that keeps them together,” the coach said.
Matt Gilebbi scored twice for Milford, including one in the first and the tying goal early in the third period.
“They’re tough, well-coached. They’re always in position,” Milford coach Ken Mitchell said. “I thought we carried a little bit of momentum there in the first, up a goal. They took it back.”
Donohue and Logan Maciel gave New Milford a 2-1 lead in the second period as the Green Wave took a bit of momentum.
“It was hitting passes and getting quicker out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone and getting the puck deep, and really just hitting passes,” Maciel said. “We had the effort, we just weren’t doing the little things right. That’s what we did coming into the second to get a lead going into the third.”
The Green Wave will play for a conference championship for the first time since 2015, which was also their last winning season. The program hasn’t won a conference tournament since the 2008 SWC Division II championship.
Maciel said there’s a camaraderie to this Green Wave team that helps them on the ice.
“We lost 40, 50 points to graduation. We didn’t have that one star,” Capriglione said. “The seniors had to come together. All the seniors are our leading scorers. The team dynamic’s been great. Without having that one kid, everybody’s had to raise their game, so that’s been a big deal for us.”
Sheehan is 12-1 against Division III teams this year, the loss to Hall/Southington. The Titans’ only one-goal win was a 3-2 game against New Milford on Jan. 20 at Choate.
“It’s going to be a good game. It’s going to be a fast game. I think it’s going to get physical down low,” Maciel said. “We’ve got to cover the front of the net. They love cycling it behind the net out front. We know what we’ve got to do and shut them down.”
Milford (8-13) was playing its first postseason game of any kind since 2015 and its first conference playoff game in eight years. Mitchell hopes it’s something to build on next week in the state tournament, even taking some fuel from the feeling of losing.
“It’s good for the seniors. These kids haven’t seen anything for three years but mediocrity at best, so it’s good for them to experience a little playoff hockey,” Mitchell said.
“We knew it was going to be a major task. Dave’s got a great team. Those kids are hungry. It’s great to see Sheehan come as far as they have.” —Newtown coach Paul Esposito