Boys Ice Hockey: Notre Dame-WH stuns Darien, punches D1 semifinal ticket

Darien senior co-captain James Gregory (6) controls the puck during the CIAC Div. I quarterfinals Saturday at the Wonderland of Ice. — Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media

BRIDGEPORT—Playoff hockey is different.

The margin for error is razor-thin. The end to three months of wonderful effort can come suddenly.

The operative phrase is ‘On any given night.’

The third time was certainly not the charm for the No. 3 seed Darien boys hockey team in Saturday’s Division I state quarterfinals at Wonderland of Ice.

No. 6 seed Notre Dame-West Haven High School found the formula for success as it ousted the Blue Wave, 3-1 before a packed arena.

The win means the Green Knights (12-9-1 overall) advance to Wednesday’s Division I semifinal doubleheader at Yale’s Ingalls rink where Northwest Catholic will be waiting. No. 2 seed NW Catholic eliminated No. 7 seed New Canaan, 1-0 Saturday.

ND-West Haven had lost 6-4 and 7-3 to Darien in the regular season.

Knights’ coach Larry Vieira changed strategy for Saturday’s encounter.

“Normally we are extremely aggressive on our forecheck. This time we used a neutral-zone trap,” Vieira said. “It slowed up Darien’s speedy wings. Slowing the wings cut Darien’s legs off to a degree.”

Another key was ND-West Haven was able to play with a lead much of the contest.

Andrew Buckholz scored just 5:52 into the battle for 1-0. Zach Schroeder tallied on a shot from the right point with 2:52 left in the second period for 2-1.

The Wave completed its season with a record of 17-6, dropping two of its three playoff games.

“I was happy with our season overall,” Darien head coach Mac Budd said. “We had struggled a bit the previous two years. This group answered the challenges and posted a number of big wins along the way. I’m happy with a lot of our accomplishments. We just ran into some very hot goalies in the playoffs.”

The biggest star for ND-West Haven was sophomore goalie Connor Smith. Smith responded Saturday with a 30-save performance including a group of stops worthy of a YouTube video.

“I owe much of today’s success to my team. There were so many blocks in front by my guys on pucks that didn’t get through,” said Smith, who was in net three weeks ago for Darien’s 7-3 win over the Green Knights. “We knew Darien could be beaten. I believe they underestimated us. They did score 13 goals in the first two games against us. There was reason for them to think today would be easy.”

Budd took note of Smith’s performance.

“We played well. We just couldn’t finish,” Budd said. “Hats off to ND-West Haven’s goalie. Some of his saves were incredible. He was the best player on the ice. We didn’t have enough pucks get through. Therefore there weren’t a lot of rebounds for us to cash in.”.

Blake Swiggett, one of 10 Darien seniors, had the lone Blue Wave goal midway through the second period to tie the score at 1-1. ND-West Haven’s Ian Hayden added an empty net tally with 5.5 seconds left as Darien senior goalie Henri Pfeifle collected 23 saves.

ND-WEST HAVEN 3, DARIEN 1

ND-WEST HAVEN 1 1 1 – 3

DARIEN 0 1 0 – 1

Goals: ND-WH – Andrew Buckholz, Zach Schroeder, Ian Hayden (empty net); D – Blake Swiggett; Assists: ND-WH – Mike Card, Hayden; D – Jack Massey. Saves: NDWH – Connor Smith 30; D – Henri Pfeifle 23; Shots: NDWH – 26; D – 31