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Last season ended in the most disappointing yet thrilling way possible for Newtown High School’s boys’ hockey team, and the Nighthawks are striving to build off all that transpired late last winter — good and bad — as they embark on a move up to the Division II level.
The Nighthawks won their conference championship in D-III, already knowing they had been suspended from qualification in the state playoffs resulting from excessive major/ misconduct penalties, in large part the result of a scuffle following Newtown’s regular-season finale against North Haven. It was an incident in which Nighthawks felt they were wronged given the way things went on the ice, leaving the Nighthawks extra hungry to get back into the state playoffs.
“We want to get back to that spot where we felt we should have been last year and have another opportunity for a state championship,” said Newtown Coach Paul Esposito, whose team won the D-III state title in 2014, adding that what happened a year ago fuels the team’s objective. “I hope it’s in the back of their minds.”
Qualifying for the postseason would not have been a problem based on wins and losses a year ago when the Hawks posted a 12-7-1 mark. That one tie, not any of those losses, happened to be the biggest blemish since it came in the North Haven game.
Making it into the Southern Connecticut/South-West Conference and state playoffs stands to be a challenge for the Hawks given their strength of schedule.
“It’s not going to be an easy season for us, but everyone’s up for the challenge,” said Esposito, whose team will play tough D-II programs in and out of conference.
The decision to move up to D-II is primarily because it is a stepping stone toward getting to the D-I ranks down the road. Esposito said there is not much difference between D-II and D-III given so many teams in D-III are multischool programs that are as competitive as some D-II teams, but that the move up will help the program get a step closer to Division I status. A proponent of single-school teams facing like competition in the postseason is another reason for the step up.
Newtown’s schedule does include some Division III rivals, including Masuk of Monroe, Joel Barlow of Redding, and Bethel-Brookfield-Danbury (BBD).
“I expect really, really tough games with [Masuk, Barlow, and BBD]. They’re well coached. There are good rivalries between these teams. We have our hands full this year with our schedule. I don’t see any team on our schedule this year as an easy W,” Esposito said.
Cheshire and Guilford are D-II teams from the SCC part of the conference that are among the better teams Newtown will face.
The coach is optimistic that a not-so-easy regular slate will have his team battle-tested and better prepared for the postseason.
Newton has played at the D-II level before. In 2013, the Nighthawks were seeded 17th but defeated top-seeded Amity of Woodbridge in the first round of the state bracket.
Strengths of this year’s lineup include its stature and top-to-bottom level of ability, the coach said.
“We have good size this year, which is a nice component to have,” Esposito said.
“We’re really happy with the depth of the team,” Esposito added. “We’re looking at a well-balanced defense as well as a well-balanced offense.”
Newtown lost nine players to graduation, including two-thirds of its top line, and a bulk of its scoring, in Domenic Cartelli and Scott McLean, and starting goaltender Kyle Murphy. A few other players also did not return due to family relocation and changing schools.
There is an emphasis on team hockey and practicing systems to apply to game action with the Hawks no longer able to rely on a select few go-to players for goal-scoring.
David Brestovansky, a top-line player a year ago, does return and should provide goals and assists to help lead the way. Brestovansky is a senior captain along with forward Marc Carlson.
“We’re expecting big things if we fill our roles,” Brestovansky said.
Devin Marsh, who previously was a forward, will move back to defense and provides some of that size, along with defenseman Jetson Ku, Esposito referenced.
Jack Hanley is a forward/defender who brings to the ice experience and versatility. Matthias Paltauf saw ice time as a freshman last year and will contribute on offense.
Justin Halmose will start in goal after serving as the backup last year, and stepping in (and stepping up) when called upon for a handful of games.
“He’s got some big shoes to fill but he filled them last year when Murphy got hurt. He’s shown he’s capable of being a number one varsity goalie,” Esposito said.
The puck drops to start the regular season when the Hawks visit Milford, at Milford Ice Pavilion, on Saturday, December 16, beginning at 1 pm.
“We’ve been training for a long time over the summer and we’re excited to get going,” Carlson said.
Newtown and North Haven renew acquaintances on Wednesday, December 20, when the Nighthawks skate into Northford Ice Pavilion for a 6:15 pm contest. The first home game is on Friday, December 22, when Mt Everett of Massachusetts visits Danbury Ice Arena for a 5:30 pm contest. Newtown and Barlow will play their annual Warrior Cup Game to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project on Wednesday, December 27, at 7:40 pm. This is an away game for Newtown but will be played in Danbury, home of both the Nighthawks and Barlow.
Prior to the game with Barlow, the annual Skate with the Nighthawks event will take place, 5:40 to 6:40 pm. All youth hockey players from Newtown schools are invited to bring full equipment and meet the players and participate in drills. The event is free, and registration begins at 4:30 pm.