The "Holy War" will see its first installment tonight when for the first time in Division I's lengthy history all four semifinalists will come from the Catholic/Private/Parochial realm. Love it or hate it (like most of you do) this is where we're at. I think for this to be the first time this has ever happened sort of debunks some past claims from some that the privates are ruining high school hockey. I also, editorially, find it funny that it took Ridgefield losing one game for this ongoing complaint to rear its head again when most of those complaining had Ridgefield penciled in as their champ. I digress, these teams earned their way here and all arrived here in varied fashion. Northwest Catholic has been a top three team all year. Fairfield Prep was written off as dead early on and has put those claims to rest. Xavier is looking for their first title trip ever and coming from a team who had lost their first 7 of 8 games this year, this is impressive no matter how you twist it. Then there's NDWH, a team with first year Head Coach Larry Vieira on the bench getting it done after their entire offensive production from a year ago was graduated or released early to the prep ranks. Let's take a look at the matchups.
(6) Notre Dame-West Haven (12-9-1) vs. (2) Northwest Catholic (18-2-1)
5:30, Ingalls Rink
The first of two semifinals pits the Green Knights of Notre Dame-West Haven against the Lions of Northwest Catholic. Northwest Catholic beat NDWH 3-1 when the two met earlier this year but it's safe to say this NDWH team is playing at a much different level than when they met back mid January. NDWH is looking to book their first ticket to a final since losing to Prep 3-2 in the 2013 DI Championship. NWC reached the final in 2017 when they fell 6-2 to Ridgefield. They are still seeking their first state championship at any level.
In the semifinals, 6-seed NDWH beat a very talented 3-seeded Darien Blue Wave group, 3-1 on an empty netter. It was a Darien team who had had NDWH's number this year winning both prior meetings. In the win, sophomore netminder Connor Smith topped 30 shots while senior Ian Hayden collected a goal and an assist. Sophomores Andrew Buckholz and Zach Schroeder gave the Knights some much needed secondary scoring both lighting the lamp in that one.
This is a NDWH team who lost a ton so to make it this far isn't lost on first year Head Coach Larry Vieira. "Truly this has been a team effort. With the loss of last year's seniors and four pure scorers, we only had six returning varsity players. The kids have bought into the system and we have all bonded together as one unit, coaches and players alike. It all came together senior night," Vieira said.
For the Lions, they had a tall task coming off their bye facing a tough 7-seed in New Canaan. After a back and forth neutral zone affair, sophomore Connor Melanson's first period tally would prove to be enough to propel the Lions on to the semis. Senior goalie Mike Kaliff posted yet another shutout stopping 18 shots in this one. On the negative, talented sophomore defenseman Griffin Macary was lost to injury and will likely miss the remainder of the postseason. For the Lions to have a chance at their first title, junior Brennan Horn keeps it simple. "We have to stick to the basics that got us here and get pucks deep and to the net as early and often as possible. We have to eliminate unforced turnovers and odd man rushes for them," Horn said. If NWC is able to do those things, I like their chances here, but never count out Cinderella this time of year.
(8) Xavier (10-10-2) vs. (5) Fairfield Prep (13-8-1)
7:30, Ingalls Rink
In a matchup of two teams who were sort of written off earlier this year Xavier and Fairfield Prep meet up for the second time this season. Prep took the first one, 3-1 on January 23rd. These two teams played the two hardest schedules of any teams in the state this year. Combined they played 14 of the best New England area teams that can be offered. Prep went 3-3-1 against their non-CT foes and despite going 2-4-1, Xavier Co-Head Coach's Kyle Heins and Rick Longobardi believe this schedule is what prepped them for today. "Many have thought we were a bad team. Our schedule was made for one purpose which is right now," Heins said. "We are excited to play another state powerhouse who is the defending champ. We will be ready and will leave everything out there," he continued.
Xavier shocked the state, the world, maybe even the universe when they took down top seed Ridgefield 3-2 in overtime in the quarterfinals. Sophomore Nick LeClaire had the game winning goal in overtime as well as an assist. Senior Chase Maxwell and sophomore Tom Lynch also scored for the Falcons in their win. Senior netminder Jake Woznyk stopped 24. Heins and Longobardi believe leadership has been huge in the revitalization of the Falcons' group. Chase, Trevor and Brendan are our captains. And they have been great. They each lead in different ways and we can look to them for anything during team events," Heins said. If this leadership holds, Xavier could be playing for their first state title, ever.
Prep has sort of coasted to this point. They blew past 12-seed Simsbury 7-1 in a game that was never in doubt and jumped all over 13-seed ND-Fairfield and ended up winning 4-0 in a game that could've been uglier. In that win, Head Coach Matt Sather praised his team's discipline and ability to make life tough for a talented netminder in NDF's Kacy Adams. "We stayed out of the penalty box, limited transition and rebound opportunities and made Adams work. He played so well this year, we knew he was the key to that game and as always, Jake (Walker) was on point. He has been so good all year," Sather said.
In that win, senior Colin Bella scored and assisted on two others. Fellow senior Chandler Dumont had a goal and an assist while seniors Lucas Baksay and Connor Boyle lit the lamp as well.
Prep is looking to reach their 22nd state championship game. Out of the prior 21, they've won an incredible 17 of them. To do that after losing all the bodies they lost off of last year's championship team would be remarkable, but to Coach Sather it speaks to the character of this group. "I like this group. They have been resilient and tough. We are getting good leadership and these guys show up everyday," Sather said.