Girls Ice Hockey: Rivals New Canaan and Darien ready for state final clash

New Canaan’s Jess Eccleston (7) and Darien’s Nelle Kniffin (20) and Evelyn Hidy (8) mix it up during a girls ice hockey game at the Darien Ice House on Saturday, Jan. 26. — Dave Stewart/Hearst Connecticut Media photo
New Canaan’s Jess Eccleston (7) and Darien’s Nelle Kniffin (20) and Evelyn Hidy (8) mix it up during a girls ice hockey game at the Darien Ice House on Saturday, Jan. 26. — Dave Stewart/Hearst Connecticut Media photo

Even as his New Canaan girls ice hockey team was delivering a spectacular season and winning an FCIAC title, head coach Rich Bulan repeatedly said until someone defeats three-time defending champion Darien in the state tournament, the Blue Wave is still the team to beat.

Now, his Rams are ready to take their shot.

Rivals New Canaan (21-1-2) and Darien (17-4-1) will square off for the CHSGHA state championship when they clash in the final at 1 p.m., Saturday, at Bennett Rink in West Haven. It will be the third meeting between the two teams this season — the first was a 3-0 win for the Rams and the second was a 1-1 tie.

“The thing I said to the girls after after practice — you’re going to be playing the mirror image of yourselves,” New Canaan head coach Rich Bulan said. “They come at you, they go deep, they run three lines, they’ve got people who are explosive, and they’re solid on defense. It’s going to be a rough one. This is going to be who has enough at the end.”

New Canaan and Darien are indeed reflections, including with the makeups of their rosters. Of the 51 girls on the two teams, 34 are either freshmen or sophomores. The Rams have just six seniors and the Wave has two.

The two teams have historically been the most dominant forces in the state, but have met just one for the crown: Back in 2010 when then-freshman Olivia Hompe scored on a penalty shot and the Rams won, 1-0.

Since the state tournament began in 2006, Darien and New Canaan have combined to win 10 of the 13 titles, with New Canaan winning six (2006-08, 2010-11, 2013) and Darien winning four (2009, 20016-2018). Both the Rams and Wave have had three-peats, but no team has ever made it four straight, a feat Darien will be attempting to achieve on Saturday.

The only other teams with state titles are Hall/Conard in 2012 and Simsbury in 2014, and in 2015, Simsbury and East Catholic were co-champions.

“This is amazing,” Darien junior co-captain Cate Droogan said after the Wave’s 4-0 semifinal win over West Haven/SHA. “Every year, we come in and we have a standard to live up to. It makes it so much better playing them (New Canaan). It is the first time we get to play them for the state championship. We are excited.”

“This feels amazing,” New Canaan senior co-captain Jess Eccleston said after the Rams’ 3-1 semifinal win over Simsbury. “The goal at the beginning of the season was to play for as long as we can and we’ve done that. Now we’re going to the state final and it’s amazing.”

Darien’s 2019 postseason has been a near-duplicate of 2018. Last year, they were beaten by New Canaan in double overtime in the FCIAC semifinals, but came back to win the state championship, knocking out New Canaan in the semis, and then defeating the Suffield co-op in the final, 5-2.

This year, the Wave lost to Greenwich, 4-3 in overtime, of the FCIAC semifinals, but has come back with two victories, defeating those same Cardinals 2-1 in the quarterfinals and then  shutting out West Haven/SHA 4-0 in the semis.

After beating Greenwich, Darien head coach Jamie Tropsa said the Wave was just focusing on the task at hand.

“We take one shift at a time,” the coach said. “The FCIAC season is over, we knew this is a new, fresh season, we’ve got to forget what happened (in the FCIAC semis) and just move forward. Hopefully, we’ve learned from what happened before.”

New Canaan has few blemishes on its record. The only loss was a 3-2 decision against Greenwich in the Winter Classic outdoors at the Greenwich Skating Club, and since then, the Rams have gone 16-0-2.

The Rams are led by senior tri-captains Eccleston and Katelyn Sparks, and goalie Kara Fahey. The defenseman Eccleston, sophomore goalie Blythe Novick and freshman forward Kaleigh Harden are All-State selections, and another freshman, forward Grace Crowell, made the All-FCIAC FIrst Team.

New Canaan has outscored its opponents 113-16, averaging more than five goals per game, while pitching 12 shutouts and allowing more than one goal only three times..

The Rams’ offensive attack is driven by youth, with six freshmen, two sophomores and a junior on the first three lines.

Bulan said the key for the Rams is to continue playing their style.

“We can’t change what we do,” Bulan said. “We have to be aggressive, we have to have energy and we have to be on the puck. You can’t make the game bigger than it is. If you get too excited and too wound up, you’ll take away from what got you there. If we go out and play our game, we’ll be right there.”

Darien has four co-captains, including senior Shea van den Broek, an All-State forward and the Wave’s top offensive weapon the past two years, and juniors Kit Arrix and Colleen Cassidy at forward, and Cate Droogan on defense.

The Wave also features sophomores Kate Bellissimo and Nelle Kniffin at forward, and Catherine Martin on defense, along with junior goalie Hallie Kreppein, who was the MVP of the state tournament last year.

Darien was 3-3 through six games, but righted the ship and has gone 14-1-1 the rest of the way.

As they get ready to play on the championship stage, Bulan had a bit of advice for the players.

“You’ve got to enjoy this.” Bulan said. “Jamie’s been here now four times in a row, but it’s not easy. We made it (eight) straight years (2006-13) and how many teams are going to be able to do that? It’s hard to get back here.”