Darien ice hockey edged by Ridgefield in FCIAC semifinal thriller
Just 30 seconds into its FCIAC semifinal game against Ridgefield, the Darien boys ice hockey team was already faced with a 1-0 deficit courtesy of a goal by the Tigers’ Matt Walker.
It was a make-or-break moment for the Blue Wave, but instead of being rocked, Darien rolled.
In the end, the Tigers escaped with a 2-1 victory and a trip to the FCIAC final, but the game was a true playoff thriller, as the Wave delivered an intense and energetic performance Wednesday night at the Darien Ice House.
“An unfortunate goal like that to start a game can really get a team out of sync and create problems, but it didn’t do that,” Darien head coach Mac Budd said. “Our kids really had a lot of poise; it didn’t really rattle them that much at all; and I thought we played a helluva game. We played hard, our intensity level was great, and it was a very good high school game.
“It was fast, both teams had scoring opportunities, and everybody got their money’s worth today.”
After the initial goal, the Wave (10-11-1) and Tigers (17-4) were essentially even in almost every regard. There was opportunities on both ends of the ice, the defenses and goalies made big plays, and the shots were officially dead even at 27-27.
Even though the Wave was on the short end of the score, they’ve looked strong in the two playoff games so far, and have their sights set on continuing that trend against Notre Dame-West Haven in the states.
“We’re very disappointed but we’re hopeful with states coming up,” Darien senior goalie Henri Pfeifle said. “We’re looking forward to Notre Dame-West Haven. We’re looking at this loss as something we don’t want to feel again, and using it as motivation.”
Walker gave the Tigers a hot start to the game when he blocked a shot in the defensive zone and turned the tables, breaking out ahead of the pack. He got in close and wristed a shot top shelf past Pfiefle (25 saves) for the early 1-0 lead.
After that, however, the Darien defense was stifling, disrupting the Tigers’ attacks and keeping the wave in striking distance of the lead. James Gregory, Hunter Hazelton, Connor McCarthy and Matt Stein were keys to the blue line, with Fin Batson and Jack Massey also playing key roles.
“As the game went on, we got better and we were getting the puck out a lot better,” Pfeifle said of the defense. “To start out the game with that goal was tough, but we rallied right away and took it to them.”
“Our D is good, we have some experience back there, and Henri Pfeifle has done a good job for us all year,” Budd said. “Just look back to the last game against New Canaan when he really kept us in it during the first period. He’s playing his best when it matters, which is what you expect your big-time players to do.”
Darien had a power play opportunities late in the first period and early in the second, but the Gordon (26 saves) and the Ridgefield penalty kill held up.
On the second advantage, the Wave was held mostly in check, but had a couple of chances late. First, Will Johnston made a shifty move in from, but his back-hand attempt was blocked low by Gordon. Then McCarthy got behind the defense, but was again stymied by the keeper.
The Wave was unrelenting, however, and it paid off with a goal off a rebound with 5:40 remaining in the second period.
With Darien pressuring the zone, McCarthy sent a shot at Gordon, who made the save, but the puck slid out to Brian Zaffino in the right circle, and the Wave junior sent it back to the near post for the goal, tying the game at 1-1. Stein also assisted on the play.
Ridgefield responded three minutes later when Braeden McSpedon scored during a scramble in front of Darien’s goal. Ty Fujitani and Del Irving both assisted on the play.
From there, it was a back-and-forth battle, but Ridgefield held on for the decision.
For the Wave, the loss means the end of their FCIAC tite hunt, but with the states on deck, there are still games to be played.
“The great thing about where we are right now is we played a heck of a game, we didn’t end up on the right side of it unfortunately, but we have a game next Wednesday,” Budd said. “My message to them is if you bring the same intensity you had tonight, we’ll have a good chance of winning that game and playing another game.”
“It’s a different kind of game-style,” Pfeifle said of the playoffs. “There’s a different feeling in games like this and you come into all of these like it’s your last game. The seniors are very excited to play, and use that as motivation to keep going and play even better.”
FCIAC Boys Ice Hockey Semifinals - Ridgefield 2, Darien 1
Wed., Feb. 28, at Darien Ice House
Darien 0-1-0 1
Ridgefield 1-1-0 2
Darien: Brian Zaffino 1 goal; Matt Stein 1 assist; Connor McCarthy 1 assist
Ridgefield: Matt Walker 1 goal; Braeden McSpedon 1 goal; Ty Fujitani 1 assist; Del Irving 1 assist
D - Henri Pfeifle 25 saves
R - Sean Gordon 26 saves
D - 27; R - 27