Ridgefield’s First Line Is Second To None

Nick Cullinan’s celebrations have become as entertaining as his goals. (Matt Dewkett)

In compiling a 10-0 record, the Ridgefield boys hockey team has proved a Rubik’s Cube for overwhelmed opponents trying to find weaknesses to exploit.

Offense, defense, goaltending, the Tigers check all the boxes.

But in trying to outscore Ridgefield, a good first step would be trying to control Nick Cullinan, Will Forrest and Matt Walker, the irrepressible members of its first line.

Good luck. The Tigers have scored 53 goals so far and the trio has accounted for 35 of them.

“They have a sense of where they may or may not be without having to take a look,” Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher said of the group’s bond. “They just find each other and work hard for each other. All three of them are seniors, all three of them are strong. Strong skaters, strong with the puck. They can all shoot. You have three very good hockey players playing together. It is going to be likely they are going to do the job.”

The three have shared the ice since their Pee Wee and Bantam days. They were split up two years ago, when the Tigers won their first state title and the first of two straight FCIAC championships, then put back together.

Matt Walker carries the puck through the neutral zone in a win against Darien. (Matt Dewkett)

“It is really something special,” said Nick Cullinan, who has 20 goals, 10 assists and attracts most of the attention, which he deftly tries to deflect. “We know each other’s games. We each want to see the other two do well. We know each other’s tendencies, where they like the puck.”

Cullinan is the emotional leader, his demonstrative celebrations an electric charge for his teammates and large student fan section.

“I just love playing and whenever I do score I like to get the team fired up,” Cullinan said. “It is who I am. I play with emotion.”

Gallagher said Cullinan’s passionate responses to goals have an uplifting effect.

“High school goes by quick and if you’re not celebrating goal scores I think that’s silly,” Gallagher said. “If you score a goal in front of your classmates in the stands and those there to support you and even your teammates, you’ve got to celebrate hard. I love it.”

Forrest, who has eight goals and 13 assists, takes a cerebral approach both on and off the ice. He authored the Tigers’ most dramatic goal, which came in overtime of a 3-2 win over Darien two weeks ago.

“We played together in the fall and that helped us build chemistry,” Forrest said. “We were able to find instant success. I always know where Nick and Matt are on the ice and they know where I am.”

Will Forrest scores the winning goal in overtime against Darien earlier this month. (Matt Dewkett)

Walker, who has seven goals and eight assists, does a lot of the tireless work that gets overlooked outside the locker room.

“It’s awesome playing together,” Walker said. “We are really determined since this is the last time we are going to be together.”

Gallagher said the three players essentially operate like pieces to a puzzle, their skill sets perfectly complementary.

“Nick is burying the puck and gathering points at a rapid rate,” Gallagher said. “His opportunities are created off of his linemen, the defensemen and even the goaltender. The thing about Nick is he’s aware of that. He’s not walking around the rink or the school or the community like ‘Hey boys, I’m getting it done.’ He knows this is a team thing and he knows his success is in large part due to his teammates’ effort and abilities. It is one of the best parts about Nick.

“Will is a beast. Will is all over the ice winning pucks, he’s extremely smart and he sees the ice very, very well, and Matt is very slippery, very often one of our first backcheckers, helping out the defense. He’s probably undervalued by point standards if there is one but not by our team. We see on a daily basis the amount of effort they put into practices, the amount of time they put into the offseason. The amount of work they put into their shifts and creating chances.”

Opposing coaches have tried numerous methods unsuccessfully to contain the trio. And Walker said he hopes the line continues to be a primary focus.

Ridgefield’s Nick Cullinan sets up a play. (Matt Dewkett)

“We welcome that behavior from the other team because we have 18 other people who can put the puck in the net, and if we play defense we know we will always be successful,” Forrest said. “And we always feel we will match up well against the other line.”

So it is reasonable to ask Gallagher, even with the many skilled players that have contributed to the program’s success, if Cullinan, Forrest and Walker form the best line he has coached.

“They’ve won two FCIAC championships, they won a state tournament, they started the season 10-0 and they’ve combined for over 60 points,” Gallagher said. “If I said no to your question that would be really stupid of me. But there is work to be done. They can get better. They’re looking to get better and if there is a next step in ice hockey for them. They’re going to need to stay focused for their future development.”

Walker said there are just a few holes that need to be filled on their resumes.

“We want to win FCIACs and states again,” Walker said. “We are really determined to achieve that goal. This is our last time together and we are not going to get the opportunity again.”

 

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