Darien boys ice hockey team ready to return to prominence

Darien goalie Henri Pfeifle squares up the puck during a Wave contest against Greenwich last winter. — Dave Stewart photo

Darien High boys hockey coach Mac Budd likes what he sees on the ice so far this preseason. So much so that he thinks the Blue Wave is ready to reclaim its spot among the elite teams in the state.

“I think we can,” Budd, beginning his fourth year as head coach and eighth overall with the program, said. “I’m very excited.”

The DHS icemen won back-to-back Division I state championships in 2015, when Budd was an assistant coach, and 2016, his first year as head coach. It could’ve been three straight state titles if not for a 2-1 overtime loss to Fairfield Prep in the 2014 final.

The past two seasons, at least record-wise, have been uncharacteristic by Blue Wave standards. Darien finished 8-11 during the 2016-17 regular season followed by a first-round state-tourney exit.

Last season they went 11-12-1, although that could be largely attributed to a challenging schedule outside the conference. In fact, Darien finished 8-2-1 in the FCIAC and lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to eventual champion Ridgefield in the semifinals.

The season wasn’t without its highlights, however, including three wins against rival New Canaan, the last coming in the FCIAC quarterfinals.

“At least a couple of games could’ve gone either way,” Budd, a 1981 DHS graduate and former three-sport standout, said. “When you beat New Canaan, you know you played well and it’s something to be proud of.”

The Wave, seeded 13th in Division I, was also proud of its 3-2 overtime upset win against No. 4 Notre Dame of West Haven in the first round of the state tournament.

“Our other big win was against Greenwich,” Budd noted, referring to one of only two regular-season losses by the Cardinals, the FCIAC and D-I state runner-up.

Budd and his returning players are hoping some of last season’s success carries over into the 2018-19 campaign, which begins next Wednesday, Dec. 12, against LaSalle Academy of Rhode Island at 5 p.m. at the Stamford Twin Rinks.

“They’re the preseason No. 1 team in Rhode Island,” the Darien coach pointed out. “We played them tough last year at Providence College (a 4-1 loss by DHS) and this year they’re coming down here.

“And before we play them we’re scrimmaging St. John’s Prep on Saturday and St. John’s Shrewsbury on Sunday. They’re both Super Eight teams from Massachusetts.”

It certainly won’t take Budd very long to get a read on his team.

“We’ll get tested right away in those two scrimmages and then LaSalle in our first official game,” he said. “We try to create the most competitive schedule we can. I feel strongly that it’s not where we are the first week of the season, but where we are the last week. That’s why we play the best teams we can. We want to be the best team we can be.”

The Blue Wave graduated 12 seniors from last year’s team, but several key players return.

“Your team leaders — your captains and your seniors — are very important and I’m happy we have very, very good captains. This leadership group knows what it takes to be successful.”

They will be led by senior tri-captains C.J. Hathaway and Hudson Pokorny up front and James Gregory on defense.

Another key senior is goalie Henri Pfeifle, who earned all-state honors as a junior.

“Henri gives us a chance to win every game,” Budd said. “He’s a great athlete who plays his best in big games, which is a huge advantage for us going into the season.”

Meanwhile, Brian Zaffino is a junior defenseman who was injured most of last season, but he’s healthy now and Budd is “looking for big minute from him” this season.

Senior Griffin Martens and juniors Bennett McDermott and Max Sharp are three more upperclassmen who should play big roles.

The Blue Wave also received what Budd called an “unexpected surprise” when senior Blake Swiggett came out for this year’s team.

“He kind of came out of leftfield,” Budd said. “He’s a golfer, but he played a very high level of youth hockey and he decided to come back after a very long layoff. I think he could be a big contributor.”

The roster also includes nine sophomores who could make an impact.

“Nine sophomores is nuts,” Budd said. “But I think we have a lot of talent in our sophomore group and we will give them big minutes in games.”

Add it all up and the 2018-19 Darien boys hockey team seems poised to make a run at another state crown.

“Our goal is we want to be a hard team to play against,” Budd said.  “We’re looking at it as a process. We want to focus on a game-to-game basis. We’re not focused on the end of the season yet. We’re focused on each game.

“We want to try to win each game and then focus on the next opponent on our schedule. Right now, we’re focused on LaSalle Academy.”