By Emery Filmer
BRIDGEPORT – The rallying cry for the 2014-15 Darien High School boys hockey team has been unmistakable:
It’s payback time.
And Saturday at Webster Bank Arena in the Division 1 quarterfinals, that theme continued in the Blue Wave’s 3-1, Jake Kirby-powered victory over Ridgefield.
“We’re on a mission,” Darien coach Chris Gerwig said after his team had earned a spot in Wednesday’s semifinals at Yale’s Ingalls Rink.
Darien is now two victories away from the school’s first state championship since 1969. The second seed Blue Wave will play No. 3 Xavier on Wednesday. A win there and they get the Greenwich-Glastonbury winner Saturday at 2 p.m. at Ingalls Rink in the final. Top seed Greenwich advanced Saturday with a 5-2 victory over No. 9 Fairfield Prep in the opening game.
A state title would be the final piece to this payback season. Since last March, Darien (21-2-1) has lost four of its last 29 games: first to rival New Canaan in last year’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference final, then to Fairfield Prep in the state Division 1 championship game, and then this season to Notre Dame of West Haven in January, one week before Ridgefield handed the Blue Wave a rare regular-season conference loss.
So, let’s check the payback scorecard:
The Blue Wave defeated New Canaan not once, not twice, but three times this season, including in the FCIAC semifinals before beating Greenwich for the title. Check.
They got back at Prep, which defeated Darien in overtime in last year’s Div. I final, with a win on Feb. 4. Check.
They’ll have to wait until next year to avenge their Jan. 5 loss to NDWH, but evened the score Saturday against No. 7 seed Ridgefield (15-8). Kirby scored all three goals as the Blue Wave extended their unbeaten streak to 17 that began after the loss to Ridgefield. Check.
“Revenge has been our motto this year,” Kirby said. “We want to reclaim what we thought was ours last year.”
Saturday’s triumph certainly did not come easily, despite the fact that Darien outshot Ridgefield 33-13 and was in command of the game for basically all 45 minutes. But with under eight minutes remaining in the third period the score was tied at 1.
“We never pushed the panic button,” Gerwig said. “You’ve got to give (Ridgefield goalie Pat Sheehan-Delany) credit. But we’ve been through so many championship games in recent years, we know how to handle these kind of games. That goes a long way.
“Kirby is a big-time player,” Gerwig continued. “And he’s got big-time linemates (Miller and Jack Pardue).”
Kirby, who scored on a breakaway off a nice feed from Craig Miller late in the second period, banged a rebound past Sheehan-Delany (30 saves) with 7:17 remaining in regulation time, and then added an empty-net goal with 24 seconds left.
“Even though it was only 1-1, we kept going, kept going,” Kirby said. “It wasn’t a highlight-reel kind of goal but I’ll take it. Getting three goals in a state quarterfinal is special but our job is not finished.”
“Darien is a talented group and they keep finding a way to win,” Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher said. “We did a good job keeping their quality of shots as low as possible but we couldn’t clear the puck out from in front on (Kirby’s second goal).”
Darien might have tightened up ever so slightly when Ridgefield tied the game at 1 with 3:29 remaining in the second period. Alex Fugazy scored for Ridgefield with Brad Alexander assisting, and the teams would go into the third period all even, just as they had back on Jan. 12. Ridgefield outscored Darien 3-0 in the final period for the win on that day, but no such luck Saturday as Darien goalie Will Massie (12 saves) stopped the few chances the Tigers could muster.
Greenwich 5, Fairfield Prep 2
For a while Saturday’s first quarterfinal was reminding Greenwich coach Bob Russel of last Saturday’s FCIAC final against Darien. In that game Russel’s team came out flying but was outscored, 4-0, in the second period and eventually lost, 5-3.
Against two-time defending state champion Prep Saturday, the Cardinals saw a 4-0 advantage turn into a precarious 4-2 lead late in the second period before Prep seemed to go on a 15-minute power play in the third period. But this time the result was different and the Cardinals earned a semifinal berth for the first time since 2002 with a 5-2 victory. Russel can thank goalie Bryan Archino for that.
“The third period was a lot like the second period last week against Darien,” Russel said. “But this time Archie played like a true competitor and really bounced back after giving up that soft one.”
With top seed Greenwich (20-2-2) ahead 4-0 late in the second period, Prep’s Jack McGowen flipped the puck toward Archino from outside the blue line. Incredibly, the slow-moving puck slipped under the goalie and into the net. A few minutes later the No. 9 seed Jesuits (10-11) were within two goals when Justin Blanchette scored.
“I just didn’t have my stick on the ice and it went between my legs,” Archino said. “The senior goalie had allowed more than three goals in a game just once, the five given up in the FCIAC final against Darien. “But I really want to play at Yale so I wasn’t going to be denied.”
Archino stopped all 13 shots he faced in the third period, and 28 of 30 overall. Most of the third period saves were of the spectacular variety, especially a glove save on a deflected shot with four minutes left that clearly frustrated the Jesuits.
“(Archino) stood tall in the third period,” Prep coach Tim Sather said. “I thought we had one there but the kid ate it up.”
Archino did indeed prove too much for the Jesuits, as did the four-goal deficit. The Cards, looking for their first state title since 1992, scored on two breakaways in the first period, one by Kristian Cunningham just 68 seconds into the contest, and then one by Montana Larson. Larson got the puck right after stepping out of the penalty box and beat Prep goalie Jack Taubl (13 saves).
Cunningham added his second goal one minute into the second period and Greenwich’s Brian Silard made it 4-0 midway through the second period before Prep mounted its comeback.
“At 4-0, I figured we’d make it a simple game,” Russel said.
Nothing, however, comes simple against Prep.
“To see that energy and pride between the second and third period, that shows what Fairfield Prep is, just as much as the state titles do,” Sather said.