It’s a season of high hopes for the Darien Blue Wave boys ice hockey team. So why not begin with a championship-caliber opponent?
Darien and defending Rhode Island state champion La Salle Academy played a season-opening thriller, with the Rams edging the Wave 3-2 in overtime before a packed house at Stamford Twin Rinks on Wednesday.
The teams had played nearly 53 minutes of hockey before La Salle junior Jack Gannon broke free through the left circle and fired a shot high into the Darien goal for the winner with 10 seconds remaining in OT.
Despite the loss, Wave head coach Mac Budd was pleased with the performance against a highly-ranked opponent.
“I’m happy with the way that we played tonight,” Budd said. “We moved the puck very well and we gave ourselves a lot of good opportunities. Their goalie (Justin Spencer) obviously had a very solid game and at certain points in that game, kept them in it.”
“We played great and we dominated for a majority of the game,” senior co-captain James Gregory said. “I think it’s a win for us looking forward and we’re looking forward to the next game.”
Coming off a season in which they went 11-12-1, albeit against a difficult schedule, the Wave is looking to get back over the .500 mark this winter and has the roster to do it. Darien features both key veterans and talented young players.
A big plus for Darien on Wednesday was its ability to respond, as La Salle twice took the lead only to have the Wave come back and equalize.
“It’s great that the team was able to come back twice after they scored,” Gregory said. “That just shows we have a gritty group of guys and they’re not getting down when the other teams score, they’re getting up to get it back.”
Darien had the better shots in the first period, but both teams came up empty on their chances and remained scoreless.
The Rams then broke on top at the 4:42 mark of the second period, when La Salle held off the Wave’s offensive pressure and counter-attacked. Kevin Kanaczet took a pass from Mason Daignault in the slot, swooped in front and flipped the puck over the glove of goalie Henri Pfeifle for a 1-0 lead.
With under five minutes to play in the second stanza, the Rams’ Ethan Cordeiro was called for a hook and Darien took just five seconds to score on the resulting power play. Sophomore Luke Johnston won the puck on a faceoff in the zone and sent it to the far post, where Sean Bradley, another sophomore, banged it in to tie the score.
A minute and a half later, La Salle regained the lead when Gannon scored off a rebound with 3:14 on the clock.
The Rams started the third period with a power play, but the Wave tied the score with a short-handed goal 40 seconds in. Junior Max Sharp controlled the puck behind the La Salle goal and slipped it into the slot to Gregory, who fired a shot past Spencer to make it 2-2.
“I attribute that to Sharp,” Gregory said. “He made a great play behind the net, waited for the pass to be open and put it right on my tape. He did a great job down low there and that set it up.”
Throughout the third period, Pfeifle was outstanding, making several big saves to keep La Salle off the board.
“Henri’s an All-State goalie for a reason,” Budd said. “He’s played great for us and he plays his best hockey in big games like tonight. We feel great to have him back there and we’re lucky to have a goalie like that. We’re in any game with him in the net.”
Pfeifle and Spencer each had big saves on the final three minutes of regulation and into overtime.
In the closing minutes of OT, the Wave had several chances, including three in succession from Blake Swiggett, Matt Stein and CJ Hathaway, but Spencer made each of those stops.
La Salle then flipped the ice when Gannon cut in through the left circle and scored top shelf with 10 seconds remaining.
“A performance like that against a classy organization, a well-coached team, and state champions from Rhode Island last year is a great game,” Budd said. “People got their money’s worth tonight. It was certainly a good, exciting game, fast-paced, not a lot of penalties and in OT for the first game.”
It was the second meeting in the past two years between Darien and La Salle, with the Wave traveling to Rhode Island last December. Budd is hoping the teams can keep the competition going.
“We take a lot of pride in our program and we make every effort to get the best competition possible,” Budd said. “Some of that involves reaching out of state, and James Mello, their coach, is fantastic, so we contacted him and got this thing going. I hope we can continue this because it’s a lot of fun to play in games like this.”
LaSalle Academy, RI, 3, Darien 2 (OT)
Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Stamford Twin Rinks
LaSalle 0 2 0 1 – 3
Darien 0 1 1 0 – 2
LaSalle: Jack Gannon 2g; Kevin Kanaczet 1g, 1a; Mason Daignault 2a
Darien: Sean Bradley 1g; James Gregory 1g; Luke Johnston 1a; Max Sharp 1a; Matt Dailender 1a
L – Justin Spencer
D – Henri Pfeifle