WEST HAVEN – Both regular-season meetings were defensive battles that went into overtime, so it was only fitting that with the conference championship on the line the Newtown High School and New Fairfield-Immaculate of Danbury hockey teams needed extra time to decide things once again.
In the end, it was second-seeded New Fairfield-Immaculate which came out on top, earning a 2-1 victory over the top-seeded Nighthawks in the March 7 Southern Connecticut/ South-West Conference Division III title game at Bennett Rink.
Austin Murphy deflected home a shot by Joseph Carlucci a little less than nine minutes into the 15-minute overtime period to break the deadlock, only moments after the Nighthawks came close to winning it themselves.
“The kids played their hearts out. They left everything out on the ice tonight,” Newtown Coach Paul Esposito said. “This is going to fuel us for states.”
The Division III state tournament is set to get going on Monday, March 10. Check casciac.org for bracket details.
In the regular-campaign clashes between the eventual conference finalists, Newtown prevailed 1-0 in overtime once and the rivals skated to a scoreless tie the second time around.
Both teams had great chances to score the game winner in this most recent get-together, a highly-physical, rough-at-times battle, before it finally happened. Moments before the clincher was registered, Newtown’s Hayden Savoia made a nice behind-the-back centering pass, from just below the goal line, to Cooper McLean, whose shot was denied by goaltender Ryan Dobos. That was one of 30 saves made by the New Fairfield-Immaculate netminder, en route to game Most Valuable Player honors.
At the other end of the ice, his counterpart – Patrick McLoughlin – was equally up to the task of keeping pucks in front of him for the better part of 50-plus minutes of game action.
“The ice was lopsided the first two periods,” said Esposito, referring to New Fairfield-Immaculate’s almost constant pressure in Newtown’s defensive zone through the first 30 minutes.
Much of that puck control domination was a result of some man advantage opportunities for New Fairfield-Immaculate, including a 5-on-3, during which the Rebels’ Joseph Hicks scored on a rebound to give his team a 1-0 lead with 8:59 to play in the second period.
The Nighthawks somehow managed to get out of the middle period even on the scoreboard, thanks to strong defensive play and McLoughlin’s goaltending – and a clutch goal by Zach Waller during a rare middle-period offensive zone appearance by Newtown.
The Hawks evened the score with 1:24 left in the period when Matt Sabia skated deep into the Rebels’ zone and centered a pass. Waller put the puck home (Savoia also logged an assist) and Newtown carried some newfound momentum into the third period. The Newtown fans, particularly a large contingent of supportive classmates, cheered as if their team had the lead as the Hawks skated off the ice at the end of the second. Waller’s goal made it seem that way.
The Nighthawks could have won the game in regulation if not for the strong play of Dobos during a third-period penalty kill. After Waller drew a penalty on a New Fairfield-Immaculate player, a trio of Newtown forwards – Scott McLean, Cooper McLean, and Connor Hanley – crashed the goal mouth to try to bang home a rebound during one Nighthawk flurry.
“We knew coming in it was going to be a very close game,” Esposito said.
The Newtown coach said the team would turn the page and look ahead to the state tournament beginning with a practice session the day after the conference tourney finale.