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Friday, March 21, 2014

CTHSHockey Finals Preview

Prep's Billy Overby
It's that time of year again. We're down to the final two trips to the Whale, one on Friday night where a Division II State Champion will be crowned and one on Saturday morning when a Division III and Division I State Champion will be decided. The field is fun this year with some normalcy but some new faces looking to permanently cement their place in the Connecticut High School Hockey record books. The perennial favorite Fairfield Prep is back for the fourth time in five years. Prep won the Division I state title 3-2 over Notre Dame-West Haven. Prep got here by beating NDWH 4-3 in overtime on a Matt Wikman goal. The game was phenomenal, packed, rowdy, clutch and hard hitting. It came at a good time after the first of the two semi's between Darien and ND Fairfield let down expectations. Speaking of Darien, whom I am hearing will have a much larger cheering contingent on Saturday, the Wave return to the state championship game for the first time since 1987... 27 years. They last won a state championship in 1969. This opportunity doesn't come knocking often and for the FCIAC, this would be their first D1 state title, should Darien win, since 1998 when Trinity Catholic won the whole thing. Some more new faces invade the hallowed halls and locker rooms of famed Ingalls Rink wet behind the ears. Neither Newtown or EO Smith-Tolland, our DIII finalists have ever played for a state championship before. Something has to give in this one. Amity last one a state title in 2010, Daniel Hand last won a state title in 2006. That may not seem that long ago, but it's something these current rostered players have never experienced. They will surely be hungry. Let's look a little deeper.

Friday, March 21, 2014
Ingalls Rink, New Haven
Division II State Championship
7:30 p.m. (13) Daniel Hand vs. (2) Amity

THE SCOOP: Hand is certainly this year's Cinderella. From steady, productive play out of forwards Ben Solin and Danny Braumann to impenetrable goaltending from senior net minder Chase Briggs, the Tigers have taken the state and the #1, 4, and 5 seeds by storm. Hand is looking to become the second straight (13) seed to win a DII state title. But when it comes to the DII ranks, I think seeding can be thrown out the window. This division has been so tight all season long and Hand isn't a fluke. This is a strong team, a quality team and a dangerous team, especially from the goal mouth out. Hand did all the right things against (1) East Catholic. The Eagles never really got soaring and Hand was very opportunistic with their goals in their 5-1 semifinal win. With all the deserved attention Solin and Braumann get, it's easy to forget about some of Hand's role guys. Sophomore Mike Belliveau has been great in a complementary role and senior defenseman Danny Healey's play really jumped off the ice at me on Monday. To win, I keep saying Hand needs more than just the Solin/Braumann show. While I still think that's true, it's starting to look more and more like these to work horses can carry the load especially with Briggs in net. Who, in my opinion, will be the difference maker in this one. Amity is back in the state title game and has to be considered a favorite simply because of their seed and their regular season success against Hand. The Spartans topped the Tigers convincingly 6-3 on February 22nd. I'll be honest, when Keating Seymour went down with a season ending injury, I thought the Spartans were done. But they rallied around the injury in an inspirational way. Kevin Ryan, as I reported, has been excellent and both Adam Shea and Brett McNeil have certainly lifted their game to a higher level. Johnny Uscilla has been as dependable as any defenseman in the state and goalie Brian Mosher, while not as flashy as Briggs has been solid. Amity will need to dictate the time of possession in this game similarly to how they did against Milford. They will need to get a ton of shots on Briggs because small sample sizes won't be enough to dent him. Hand also dominated possession against East Catholic which came as a surprise to me. When it comes down to it, Hand isn't the same team as the regular season who dropped some lopsided affairs and allowed some crooked numbers to be put up against them. This will be Solin's swan song as he is off to Phillips Exeter next year. Briggs and Braumann, a glaring omission on the CIAC All State First and Second Teams, are both graduating. While Amity is the on paper favorite and deservingly so, Shea, McNeil and company are electric and fun to watch, I think Hand has more momentum on their side and in my opinion, the better goalie which this one may come down to. 

THE PICK: Now, I've talked with a few Tigers about my predictions, still fascinates me how much you guys care about that, and they would prefer I continue to pick against them. Well, not so fast sweetheart, I'm going with the 13 seed Tigers in this one. I'm a Cubs fan. I'm not allowed to believe in jinxes and if you do, well, you're stupid. Hand is the better defensive team, right now and I think Briggs will be able to stifle Amity's potent weapons enough to give the Tigers a shot. Hand 3, Amity 1 

Saturday, March 22, 2014
Ingalls Rink, New Haven
Division III State Championship
10:00 a.m. (4) EO Smith-Tolland vs. (2) Newtown

Bucks forward Pete Mayer
THE SCOOP: Both teams will be making their state championship debuts. Newtown appears in the state final after rolling through the first three rounds beating opponents (15) Joel Barlow, (7) Hall-Southington and (11) Tri-Town by a combined 15-3 score. Goalie Patrick McLoughlin allowed merely a lone goal in each of the games so far and the Nighthawks hope to build on this against their sternest test of the tourney so far. Senior Jonathan Lovorn put together a great season. I've talked at great length about his ability to change games, to take over and dominate in all phases. This hasn't wavered. Sure Lovorn is quick and can score goals but he can be inserted in literally every aspect of the game. He's played forward and defense and could probably strap on the pads if McLoughlin falters. He's an impact player on a team full of steady contributors. Newtown received a three point effort (2 G, 1 A) from senior Dan Harrison in the semis but all hands are definitely on deck for this squad. Be it Savoia, McLean, Hanley, Waller, Cartelli, Sabia, anyone can be counted on to provide valuable minutes for Paul Esposito's squad. These two squads met once in the regular season and I was lucky enough to take in a fine affair. The two ended up tying 1-1 up in Storrs behind stellar efforts from McLoughlin and Bucks' goalie Matt Schoen. If that game was any indication, this one should be tight, low scoring and fun to watch. The Bucks are lead by Schoen, a dynamic goalie who rarely gets jipped on a goal. Schoen is helped in front by seniors Justin Gagnon and Aaron Lassow, two players who have had great, unheralded careers for EO. Look for forwards Ross Brancati and Peter Mayer to continue to produce on the big stage. Mayer now has eight goals in three games in this year's postseason. The Bucks have everything it takes to win a state title, as does Newtown. I can't find a decided edge in this one. The coaching on both sides is excellent, detail oriented and has proven themselves all year. In net, it's a wash. I would love to have either McLoughlin or Schoen on my squad. Lovorn is a difference maker on the back end and on special teams but aside from him, the Nighthawks don't seem to have a player the caliber of Brancati or Mayer. I like both of these squads. They have both been very kind to CTHSHockey over the years so regardless of outcome, as long as it's a good, hard fought game, I'll leave happy. But I do need to make a pick.

THE PICK: I picked Newtown at the beginning of the post season and I won't waiver from that now. They've been running over opponents with reckless abandon this postseason but that won't happen on Saturday. The Bucks have had a much harder road and are certainly more battle tested coming in. I think this benefits them exponentially. I expect the Bucks to come out hard while Newtown tests the waters a bit. If Newtown can weather an early Buck storm, they should be okay. I don't do it often but I'm calling for an OT finish in this one. Newtown 3, Bucks 2

Saturday, March 22, 2014
Ingalls Rink, New Haven
Division I State Championship
2:00 p.m. (4) Darien vs. (3) Fairfield Prep

THE SCOOP: Leaving Ingalls the other night all scattered conversation seemed to revolve around how intense and top notch the Prep/NDWH semifinal was. People discussing it the way many do when referring to the miracle on ice. Not because Prep beating NDWH was a miracle, but people simply seem to forget that there's another game to still be played. Prep will have to put their exciting overtime semifinal win over their arch rival in their rear view mirror and look towards a Darien Blue Wave team that beat the Jesuits in both meetings this season. This is a dangerous Darien team that goes about their business very workmanlike. They are competent in every area and match up fairly well against Prep, a team that runs similar systems to them. Mike Colon shut out the Jesuits the first time around while a Nick Allam overtime goal pushed the Wave past the Jesuits 3-2 in the second meeting. This by no means will be easy sailing for the Jesuits. Darien's senior leader Tommy Watters potted two goals in the semifinal win over NDF. A similar effort from Watters and key contributors like seniors Owen Koorbusch and Connor Davis will be needed. This game should bring the entire town of Darien out to the Whale. The Darien student support in the semis sucked, there's no other way to say it. But this is a team playing in the state championship for the first time since 1987, aiming for their first title since 1969 and facing a foe, people love to hate. Prep has dominated hockey in the state for the last two decades.  They've won eight state titles since 2000 and have a ridiculous 15-3 record when in the championship game. They are poised to do the same this year. Their top line of seniors Ken Kochiss, Matt Wikman and Dean Lockery is clicking. Wikman's game winning rush which was capped off with roof job beating NDWH goalie Wade Conlan was a thing of beauty. I was also impressed with the steady play of Prep sophomore defenseman Billy Overby. The kid is a thinker and seems to quickly evaluate options in all phases. I have often spoke about the talent of D-men like Brendan Killoy and Steven Bayles, but Overby's play was fantastic the other night. If Sather's goalie rotation holds true, senior Chris Gutierrez should be in between the pipes Saturday. In both Darien wins over the Jesuits this year, Gutierrez has manned the crease. Is this cause for Sather to break his strict platoon? I'm not sure. The games were tight and Gutierrez is a very good goalie, a senior who's hungry for one last blaze of glory. If Matt Beck started I wouldn't be surprised but giving Gutierrez one more shot at the Wave might be all the senior needs to pitch a gem.

THE PICK: The Fairfield Prep Jesuits have been my pick since before the season started. They are established, qualified, experienced and have a coaching staff that knows how to get the job done. A Darien win would be fantastic for the state of hockey in CT. An FCIAC school hasn't won a D1 title since 1998 (Trinity Catholic) and as I said, Darien hasn't won one since 1969. But I'm going with the Jesuits to win their 16th state title on the biggest of stages at legendary Ingalls Rink Saturday in the final game of the season. Fairfield Prep 4, Darien 2

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