DANBURY — Newtown High School’s hockey team overcame a 2-0 deficit and a physical Masuk of Monroe squad to skate away with a hard-fought 3-2 win in the season opener, at Danbury Ice Arena, on December 19.
The Nighthawks then battled back from a 3-1 hole late in the third period to salvage a 3-3 tie with nonconference foe Wilton, also in Danbury, on December 21. Cooper McLean scored twice in the final stanza, including the tying tally with just ten seconds remaining to give Newtown a 1-0-1 record to begin the campaign.
“It was nice to see that comeback,” Newtown Coach Paul Esposito said after the Wilton game.
Waning seconds heroics came into play earlier in the game. After Wilton scored a pair of early goals, Newtown’s Jack Martin got the Hawks on the scoreboard with just eight seconds left in the first period. Hayden Savoia and Domenic Cartelli earned assists on the tally. Cartelli, a freshman, stepped up and played a strong game on the second line with a pair of teammates sitting the contest out with head injuries sustained in the win over Masuk.
Wilton went ahead 3-1 in the second and McLean scored an unassisted goal early in the third, then knotted the score on a goal assisted by Dan Harrison and Brian Gregory. Newtown goaltender Pat McLoughlin made 29 saves in the tie.
The Nighthawks made the Masuk Panthers pay for some rough play by capitalizing on a late-game five-minute major power play for the decisive goal in the opener.
Savoia went to the net and redirected a shot by Brian Gallagher into the net for the go-ahead tally with 4:25 left in the third period, and only 42 seconds remaining on the first of those major penalties against the Panthers. The game-winning goal was also set up by Zach Waller, who skated into the Masuk zone and banked a drop pass off the sideboards for Gallagher.
“It was a scrappy game — crucial points for us right there for the conference playoffs,” said Newtown Coach Paul Esposito, referring to the fact these are Division III rivals in the newly formed South-West/Southern Connecticut Conference.
The win proved to be a costly one for the Hawks as two players — Scott McLean and Waller — had to be helped off the ice after sustaining hits to the head. Both penalties, announced as “contact to the head” infractions, resulted in score-at-will Newtown power plays, and game misconducts for a pair of Masuk skaters, although the second major came with just eight seconds remaining. Newtown mustered a few chances on the first five-minute advantage before finally cashing in.
Esposito, although thrilled to get the win, was upset with the fact his players were hurt and believed those hits and, thus the injuries, could have been avoided.
“I’d like to see the tone of the game set right away,” Esposito said.
That was the coach’s roundabout way of saying if penalties were called for rough hits earlier in the contest it may have kept things clean throughout the game. “I saw it coming.”
The Panthers didn’t see Newtown’s comeback coming. After a scoreless first period the Panthers established a 2-0 lead before Waller assisted Cooper McLean to make it a 2-1 game. That was the score after two stanzas. Connor Hanley jammed home a rebound of a Cooper McLean shot to deadlock the score with 9:30 left in the third.
McLoughlin made 34 saves, including a crucial stop on a slap shot with 13 seconds to go. He came up with some key denials even while Masuk was shorthanded. Newtown was out-shot 36-21.
“Pat kept us in the game. Pat definitely came to play tonight,” Esposito said.
The Nighthawks were only out-shot 10-9 in the final period, and the coach believed his team made strides — from one period to the next — as it shook off the rust.
He’d like to see Newtown improve on its defensive zone breakout with crisper passing, and a smoother, faster pace. The game was sloppy at times, but with a lot of new players on the ice and several Hawks playing together for the first time, Esposito is confident his team will improve. He was pleased with the play and leadership of defenseman Matt Sabia, as well as the hustle put forth by the first line of Waller, Cooper McLean, and Hanley.
“It was a good effort,” the coach said.