By Emery Filmer
DARIEN – In hockey a skater replaces another “on the fly.” The New Canaan girls hockey team is suddenly doing the same thing with its early-season expectations.
To the bench goes any talk of a rebuilding season.
Hitting the ice now are some legitimate championship aspirations.
“This is what we are,” New Canaan coach Rich Bulan shouted after Wednesday’s 5-1 Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference victory over the Stamford/Westhill/Staples Co-Op team at the Darien Ice Rink. Bulan was echoing his team’s postgame rallying cry in the locker room, one that he fully expects to be used the rest of the season.
“This” is the team that nearly knocked off first-place and undefeated-in-league Darien Tuesday before dominating an upstart SWS squad that entered Wednesday’s game with a 13-3 record and one that defeated the Rams back on Jan. 4 by a 7-3 count.
“This” was not the team that had gone 3-3-1 in its previous seven games, including a shocking loss to Fairfield, leading many, including the coach, to hint at the “rebuilding” term on occasion earlier this season.
“It’s starting to feel a little like the old days,” Bulan said, referring to the program’s glorious recent past. The Rams (10-6-1, 8-4-1 FCIAC) won six league and state championships during the 11-year history of the FCIAC sport. “I can see that the old fire and intensity are back.”
Catherine Granito led the way Wednesday with two goals as the Rams never let SWS threaten. NC outshot SWC, 7-0, in the first 2½ minutes of the game, took a 1-0 lead on the first of Granito’s two goals and never let up. The Rams outshot SWS for the game, 47-14.
“New Canaan came out strong for sure, but it was partially that and partially that we didn’t have our skates underneath us,” SWS coach Eli Williams said. “But I see a big-time difference in them since we beat them.”
Both teams have clinched FCIAC playoff berths and are headed to the state tournament. The FCIAC semifinals are Feb. 25 and the state tournament begins March 3. If the teams meet again for a rubber match, SWS goalie Claire Parry figures to have another busy night.
“Their goalie was outstanding,” Bulan said of Parry, who finished with 42 saves. “But our goalie was good, too. She stood on her head the last two nights.”
Bulan was referring to freshman Sarah Street, who had 33 saves in Tuesday’s close loss to Darien and then added 13 Wednesday, but several were testers. SWS’s Meg Fay, who was all over the ice throughout the game, had the team’s lone goal but could have easily had a hat trick.
There was no doubt New Canaan’s earlier loss to SWS was on the minds of the Ram skaters early in the game, although Bulan swears he never mentioned that in his pre-game pep talk. The Rams outshot SWS, 21-6, in the opening period. Granito’s goal got things rolling and Amanda Carroll and Emma Leslie added goals later in the period for a 3-0 Rams lead.
Emma Rosenstein then scored a shorthanded goal 3:39 into the second period. But SWS got on the board five minutes later on a marvelous individual effort by Fay.
The Rams wrapped up the scoring when Granito flicked a shot from 25 feet out past Parry 3½ minutes into the final period.
While the Rams’ fortunes do indeed seem to be changing on the fly, it’s been a slightly longer process for Williams’ team. SWS won a total of just nine games in the coach’s first three seasons.
“We have gained a lot of respect throughout the state this season,” Williams said. “We had already clinched our first playoff berth in the program’s history before this game, so we needed this. It’s a wakeup call for us.