Boys hockey preview: Ridgefield looks to contend despite graduation hit

Kees van Wees gives Ridgefield one of the state's premier forwards.

Kees van Wees gives Ridgefield one of the state's premier forwards.

John McCready / For Hearst Connecticut Media

A few wins away from becoming the first unbeaten Division I boys hockey team in 35 years, Ridgefield saw its season end with a shocking 3-2 overtime loss to Xavier in the state quarterfinals last March.

It was the final game for a 12-member senior class that helped the Tigers win a third straight FCIAC title and included some of the best players in program history: Forwards Nick Cullinan (38 goals, 28 assists last season), Will Forrest and Matt Walker, defenseman Simon van Wees, and goalie Sean Gordon. Cullinan, Forrest, van Wees, and Gordon all made the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Division I All-State first team.

Graduation also claimed several other key performers, leaving head coach Shaun Gallagher unsure about what to expect in 2019-20.

“A lot of the season is to be determined,” said Gallagher, whose team opens the season tonight (Dec. 18) at 6 p.m. against reigning Division I state champion Fairfield Prep at the Winter Garden. “Last year we knew what we had; this year is not like that. We lost a lot of quality minutes with the players who graduated.”

That’s not to say the Tigers are bereft of talent. In senior center Kees van Wees they have one of the state’s top players — a fast, physical center who scored 16 goals and added 17 assists for 33 points last season.

“It’s very nice to have him back,” Gallagher said about van Wees. “He’s a great all-around athlete who is a threat whenever he’s on the ice.”

Also back up front are senior Luke Welsh and junior Will Stewart, both of whom contributed in regular roles among the team’s top-nine forwards. If Welsh and Stewart flank van Wees, Ridgefield could have a lethal top line.

“I have no doubt they could create offense,” Gallagher said. “We just have to see if it’s best to play them together or move them around to spread things out.”

Sophomore Eric Perreira centers the second line, with junior Michael Conciatore and freshman Michael Bianco on the wings. Senior Brendan Tierney is the center for third line, flanked by junior Will Ruscoe and sophomore Henry Luft.

Juniors Mills Rosenblatt, and Collin Norcross and sophomore James Ahern could get playing time as depth forwards.

Some of those players have moved up from the junior varsity team that won an FCIAC championship last winter.

“The quality is deep, for sure,” Gallagher said. “It’s just a matter of plugging the right guys into the right lines.”

Ridgefield’s defense returns seniors Kevin McNicholas and Patrick Rigby, who were both top-six players last season. McNicholas is a superb skater who can contribute points and run the power play, while Rigby adds a physical element and can shut down opposing forwards.

Sophomore Chris Hamilton and junior Ryan Tullo are Ridgefield’s second pair on defense, with senior Taylor MacDonald and sophomore Ben Shlapak also expected to contribute.

In goal, juniors Matt Silliman and Jake Schneider are vying to replace Gordon, who was named the state’s top netminder last season.

“We’re going to see how they react in games,” Gallagher said. “I think they’re both good, but they are relatively untested at the varsity level.”

Gallagher was encouraged by Ridgefield’s effort in a preseason game against St. John’s Prep, a perennially strong team from Danvers, Mass.

“This was the best team I’ve seen St. John’s put on the ice, and I thought our players did a nice job,” he said. “A lot of kids might have had a hard time with it, but we didn’t back down or give up. That was a good sign for me.”

Notes: The Tigers ended the 2018-19 season with a 22-1 record.