DARIEN — Don’t look now, but the Greenwich Cardinals are once again playing like a team on a mission.
Greenwich opened the postseason by exploding for three goals in the first period and defeating the New Canaan Rams, 3-2, in the FCIAC boys ice hockey playdowns Saturday night at the Darien Ice House.
Winning in the playoffs is nothing new for the Cardinals, but it did seem a bit out of reach when they fell below the .500 mark in early February, and then ended up as the tournament’s No. 6 seed after losing a coin flip on Thursday.
Now, the Cardinals are in an underdog role and loving every minute of it.
“It feels like we have nothing to lose here,” senior co-captain Sean Pratley said. “We can only go up and I think everyone in this locker room knows that every one in this FCIAC tournament is beatable, and if we play our game, we’re good to go.”
Greenwich (10-9-2), which has won four of its last five games, will now take on No. 2 Darien (16-4-0) in the semifinals at 4 p.m., Wednesday, at the Darien Ice House. Greenwich beat Darien 3-0 in the Winter Classic at the Greenwich Skating Club on Dec. 29, but the Wave gained revenge with a 4-2 win over the Cards last Monday.
Third-seeded New Canaan (13-7-1) will head back to the drawing board to prepare for the CIAC Div. I tournament after suffering a slow start against Greenwich.
“Our starts have not been good for a little while, but we’ve been able to overcome it,” New Canaan head coach Clark Jones said. “We’ve got to figure out how to start games better because the pressure we put on in the second and third period was how we have to play all the time to be successful. 3-0 is not too big of a hole, but around tournament time, you don’t want to be in a hole.”
On the other side, the Cardinals appear to have found their stride at the right time.
“The style of play we’ve had, sometimes it takes a while to figure out what clicks with the kids,” Greenwich head coach Chris Rurak said. “We had a good two-hour practice on Thursday and revamped our whole strategy from top to bottom. You could see it in their play tonight. They like playing that style and they’re adapting to it.”
Greenwich’s victory featured a solid performance from freshman goalie Charlie Zolin, who racked up 25 saves and kept New Canaan from the net for the first 34 minutes.
“We were very sound (on defense),” Rurak said. “We didn’t give up much and then even if we did, we had a freshman goalie who’s standing pretty tall right now.”
Greenwich’s first goal came during a power play when freshman Wes Zolin’s shot hit the stick of New Canaan goalie Dylan Shane and popped into the net at 8:41. He was assisted by junior Julian Ribushofski.
Ribushofski then took advantage of a Ram turnover in the defensive zone and scored unassisted for a 2-0 lead at 10:33. Less than a minute later, Pratley scored the Cardinals’ third goal.
“We just found it early, we kept getting the puck to the net and kept finding the back of the net,” Pratley said. “We were peppering him hard and he was giving up some rebounds, so we were able to crash the net and finish them off.”
“As we head into the state tournament, every detail matters, right from the first puck drop,” Jones said of the Rams. ”We had a bad bounce and a turnover, but ultimately it was a slow start for us. The pace that we usually like to play at, we just didn’t hit that until the second period.”
New Canaan had plenty of chances to cut into the deficit in the second period, as Greenwich committed five penalties, but the Cardinal defense held up, even when the Rams had a 5-on-3 early in the frame.
“In the second period, we got into penalty trouble,” Rurak said. “But the first period showed what we’re able to do which is get the puck deep, and we stretched it out and used our speed a little bit, which they like.”
New Canaan finally got on the scoreboard at 4:07 of the third period when senior Campbell Lewis crashed the net and slipped the puck in for the goal. Junior Justin Wietfeldt and senior co-captain Walker Ker assisted.
Senior co-captain Gunnar Granito made it 3-2 with a power play goal with 8:05 to play. Junior Bennett Ong sent a pass ahead to Granito, who skated through the circle and scored high.
Granito had a chance to equalize with six minutes remaining, but his shot went wide. Wes Zolin then had a quick breakaway chance at the other end, but Shane made a huge stop.
New Canaan maintained the pressure, but was unable to break through for the tie.
“When they scored two goals in the third period with seven minutes to go, you’ve got to bear down,” Pratley said. “Luckily it worked out for us. We were able to get the puck deep and keep it out of the back of our net for the third time.”
“Their goalie made some great saves,” Jones said. “We were a little jumpy with the puck in front of the net, but give him some credit, he made some big saves and we were relentless for a while there. Eventually, they’re going to go in, it was just a little late in the game for us.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Charlie Zolin, Greenwich. The freshman came up big between the pipes for the Cards, making 25 saves, including 20 during the final two periods when New Canaan’s offense turned up the heat.
“During the regular season, we tinkered with the lines, there’s been guys in and out of the lineup, there’s injury and you’re just trying to find a style that they like to play. Sometimes it clicks early on in the season and sometimes you stumble. I think we’ve just found the right chemistry at the right time.” — Greenwich head coach Chris Rurak
GREENWICH 3, NEW CANAAN 2
Greenwich 3 0 0 – 3
New Canaan 0 0 2 – 2
1st period: G – Wes Zolin (Julian Ribushofski) 8:41; G – Ribushofski 10:33; G – Sean Pratley 11:24; 2nd period: No Scoring; 3rd period: NC – Campbell Lewis (Justin Wietfeldt, Walker Ker) 4:07; NC – Gunnar Granito (Bennett Ong) 6:55
Saves: G – Charlie Zolin 25; NC – Dylan Shane 18
Shots: G – 21; NC – 27
Records: Greenwich (10-9-2); New Canaan (13-7-1)