Through the first half of the year, the No. 1 seed in the CIAC Division I hockey tournament was an up-and-down team. Literally.
Win one. Lose one. Repeat that twice. Win one. Tie one.
But since then, Notre Dame-Fairfield is 12-1, champion of its new conglomerated conference, possibly the No. 1 team in the state poll going into the tournament and a date with St. Joseph on Wednesday.
"It's a belief in one another, a belief in your teammate," coach Steve Hetherman said after Friday's 5-2 win over Notre Dame-West Haven in the SCC/SWC Division I championship game.
The Lancers have won their past nine games, outscoring opponents 52-16 and allowing more than two goals only twice in that span. (They scored seven and six goals in those two games.)
"We're playing a complete game," senior co-captain Christian LaCroix said. "The goaltending's strong, obviously. We've just been a family."
Senior Zak Bouve took charge of a wide-open competition in net; his 24-save performance in Friday's SCC/SWC final earned him MVP honors.
"We were looking for a goalie to step up, and Zak stepped up," Hetherman said. "We had a healthy competition."
Along the way, the Lancers have avenged two of their four losses, beating Notre Dame-West Haven twice and West Haven in a rematch. The only exception is their only in-state blemish in 2014, Fairfield Prep, which defeated them twice.
But since then, LaCroix said, they've been more consistent, working hard.
That has paid off at both ends of the rink. The Lancers have scored four or more goals in 11 of their past 13 games (the exceptions: their 6-3 loss to Fairfield Prep and a 2-1 win over No. 1 Darien), but they've had a real commitment to defense, from the goaltender to the forwards.
"We've got a solid defense corps, but we all need to help out," LaCroix said. "Defense is going to win championships."
LURKING, MAYBE: Speaking of defense, Darien hadn't given up more than two goals in a game since opening night. Hadn't, until New Canaan scored five in the FCIAC final on Saturday. That sent the Blue Wave into states with losses in two out of four after an 18-game unbeaten streak. If Darien beats Greenwich in the first round, Ridgefield could be waiting in Saturday's quarterfinals, and Notre Dame-Fairfield could follow in the semis.
THE OTHER HALF: Defending champion Fairfield Prep falls a little under the radar, a younger team that missed a berth in the conference final by a tiebreaker. If it handles Hamden and either Glastonbury or Xavier, though, it could be back in the semis against FCIAC champ New Canaan (winners of 15 out of 16) or rival Notre Dame-West Haven. Read Full Article
SPREAD OUT: No one has been invincible in Division II, though last year's runner-up, East Catholic, has the top seed (facing Wilton to start) and some impressive victories. Neatly, only one of the eight first-round games pits conference rivals against each other, North Haven against North Branford. The SCC's four conference-playoff teams are in four different quarters of the bracket. The CCC's best are scattered through the bracket, too.
SEE YOU AGAIN I (OR II)? If they both win two games, Amity and Branford will play a rematch of the SCC/SWC Division II tournament final in the state semis. But Amity will have to get through Fairfield and possibly New Milford to do that. The Green Wave took the Spartans to overtime a week ago, but it's got a first-round test in upstate co-op BCR (19-2-1).
SEE YOU AGAIN II (OR III)? Neighbors Masuk and Newtown met to open the season, a 3-2 Nighthawks win. If they're to meet a second time, it'll be in the final, as they're the top two seeds in Division III. Neither has an easy path. Masuk's quarterfinal foe could be Staples/Weston/Shelton, which has some nice wins but has to get by Lyman Hall/Haddam-Killingworth. The Nighthawks begin with conference foe Barlow, which gave them a couple of good games in the regular season, and could see tough Hall/Southington next.
GAME OF THE FIRST ROUND: Westhill at New Fairfield/Immaculate (Danbury Ice Arena), Monday, 7:40 p.m. This could be a nice Division III final, the SCC/SWC Division III champion against a team that has been perfect in Division III despite taking lumps in the FCIAC. Instead, one will be done by Tuesday morning. The winners, lucky them, next draw either a good E.O. Smith/Tolland/Windham team or a hot Wethersfield team. Honorable mentions: West Haven at East Haven (DiLungo Rink), Wednesday, 6 p.m.; Hamden at Fairfield Prep (Wonderland of Ice), Wednesday, 6 p.m.; Milford at Trinity Catholic (Terry Conners Rink), Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
SWEET 16: The latest tournament format change guaranteed a 16-team tournament bracket in every division, regardless of whether all 16 finished with the magic .400 winning percentage. That got 12 teams into the state tournament that would've been home in past years, including Westhill, St. Joseph, Hamden, defending Divion II champion Fairfield, Wilton and Barlow, locally. (Norwalk missed out because of a night-after-Christmas head-to-head tiebreaker.)
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