UPDATE: The quarterfinal round game, originally scheduled for March 8 was postponed because of snow. The game will be played at the Milford Ice Pavilion on Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 pm.
WEST HAVEN – They may only the 17th seed among 18 Division II state tournament qualifiers, but members of Newtown High School’s hockey team certainly are showing they more than belong in the season-ending fight for a title. The Nighthawks, one day after outlasting No. 16 Conard of West Hartford, upset top-seeded Amity of Woodbridge 2-1 in a first-round clash, March 5, at Bennett Rink.
The Nighthawks earned the right to tangle with No. 9 North Branford on Friday March 8 in the quarterfinal round. (Visit casciac.org for game time and location updates, and complete bracket information.) Newtown defeated North Branford in the regular campaign and, with another win over North Branford, would skate all the way into the semifinal round.
Hayden Savoia, in only his second game back after being sidelined for the late portion of the regular season with a broken knee, had the tie-breaking goal 3:34 into the third period. He whipped home a shot following a centering pass by Connor Hanley who worked hard with Dan Harrison to create a turnover along the end boards. Harrison also earned an assist on the game-winning tally.
“It feels amazing. Coming off that injury I had a while back it feels awesome to come back and put the winner in the net,” Savoia said.
Newtown trailed 1-0 after one period and appeared headed to the second intermission still down a goal. That’s when Evan Isaacs came through. Isaacs netted a goal and knotted the score with less than a second remaining in the middle stanza.
The Nighthawks fought off a tenacious Amity attack late in the game. Tyler Hanley dove to block a shot as part of the strong defensive effort. NHS goaltender Patrick McLoughlin, who made 28 saves (Newtown was outshot 29-14), covered up a loose puck amidst a wild scramble near the goal mouth with just two seconds to play. Amity couldn’t pull off a shot following the ensuing faceoff, and the Hawks celebrated as the final seconds ticked away.
“We knew we had a chance based on the way we started clicking late in the season,” said Newtown Coach Paul Esposito, whose team won four contests during a five-game stretch in the final week-plus of the campaign.
“I think that they’re hungry. The have something to prove,” Esposito added. “They’re wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”
Savoia noted that the hockey team’s triumph over Amity was a nice follow-up to the NHS basketball team’s upset win at Crosby of Waterbury in a No. 29 versus No. 4 matchup in the opening round the night before. Part of the hockey team’s motivation stems from the hope to represent Newtown well in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Esposito said.
“Newtown’s coming back to be big after what happened earlier in the year,” Savoia added.
The Nighthawk skaters were a bit sluggish out of the gate in the Amity game, Esposito noted, because they had to bounce back from a wild game the night before. Newtown outlasted Conard 8-6 in a penalty-filled, back and forth affair. Esposito noted that there were a combined 33 penalties in that game. Newtown scored seven power play goals and also lit the lamp with a shorthanded net-finder.
The Conard game “was the craziest game I’ve ever coached,” Esposito said. “It was back and forth the whole way. … We took our lumps.”
Newtown was 10-10 during the regular season. Conard had a 7-11-2 mark but earned a slightly better seeding because of the state’s points system. Teams are awarded more points for wins over schools in higher divisions. Amity, despite not posting the bracket’s best winning percentage (the team was 13-7 during the regular campaign) got the top spot by virtue of the points system. North Branford was 12-6-1, including a 4-2 setback to Newtown late in year.