Shaun Gallagher says his players are well aware of the historical significance, yet he believes they will treat tonight’s state semifinal as just another game.
“They know that Ridgefield has never made it to the D1 state finals,” said Gallagher, the head coach of the Ridgefield High boys hockey team. “At the same time, they are keeping the same approach as they have all season. Show up, play hard, and let the scoreboard be a reward system.”
If the second-seeded Tigers beat sixth-seed West Haven in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader at Yale University’s Ingalls Rink tonight (7:30), the reward will be sizable: A first-ever berth in the Division I state finals. The RHS-West Haven winner meets either top-seed Northwest Catholic or fourth-seed New Canaan in the championship game Monday night (7 p.m.) at Ingalls Rink. Northwest Catholic and New Canaan play in the first semifinal tonight at 5:30.
Although Ridgefield won a Division II state title in 2002, it has never advanced past the semifinals in Division I. Semifinal appearances have also been rare; this is just the second time in the last 10 years that the Tigers have gotten to the final four.
Ridgefield and West Haven did meet in a non-conference game back on Jan. 21 that the Tigers won, 3-2. The final score was deceiving, though, as Ridgefield dominated play and built a 3-0 lead before West Haven scored twice in the final minute, including a second goal with five seconds left.
Gallagher, however, is not using that contest as either a measuring stick or reference point.
“That game was a while ago … both teams have moved on from that time,” he said. “The main point is that the game we played before doesn’t matter now. The intensity level and the details aren’t going to be the same.”
Ridgefield (22-2) needed a major comeback to reach tonight’s game. In last Saturday’s quarterfinals, the Tigers trailed perennial state power (and arch-nemesis) Fairfield Prep, 3-1, entering the third period. But goals from Nick Cullinan and Matteo van Wees in less than 30 seconds tied the game early in the final period, and Cullinan supplied the game-winning goal in overtime on a nice pass from Jonas Chang.
West Haven (16-6) had a more direct path to the semis, defeating third-seed Xavier, 4-1, in the quarterfinals. West Haven got goals from four different players and 34 saves from goalie Brendan Serenson. The Blue Devils added two empty-net goals after Xavier had closed to 2-1 late in the third period.
“They work hard and they are well coached,” said Gallagher about West Haven. “They’re also an opportunistic team.”
Although the Blue Devils have several skilled forwards, including Max Lynch and Pete Richetelli, they may struggle to match Ridgefield’s depth. The Tigers skate three quality lines (Van Wees-Landon Byers-Jeff Pracella; Cullinan-Jack Stafford-Will Forrest; Matt Walker-Joe Signorelli-Charlie Luft) and have displayed the ability to wear down opposing defenses. Ridgefield also has six quality defensemen (Chang, Harrison Chuma, Jack McGeary, Ty Fujitani, Andrew Tregurtha, and Liam Galloway) and arguably the state’s best goalie in senior Sean Keegans (39 saves in the semifinal win).
But Gallagher isn’t putting stock in metrics.
“This is the state semifinals,” he said. “It’s a big venue and a big game. West Haven has a great hockey tradition and they are going to play hard. We have to match that intensity and play smart. At this point, all the teams are good, so the outcome can come down to doing the little things right and capitalizing on chances.”