Ridgefield edges New Canaan in clash of top two ice hockey teams

Score the first two rounds for the Ridgefield Tigers.

In a battle between the state’s top two boys ice hockey teams, No. 1 Ridgefield knocked off No. 2 New Canaan, 3-1, Tuesday night at the Darien Ice House. The win gives the Tigers a sweep of two regular-season meetings with the Rams, as Ridgefield won, 4-2, at the Winter Garden in December.

Ridgefield gained control with two goals in the final four and a half minutes of the second period, and New Canaan closed the gap to 2-1 with 12:31 remaining in the third. Matteo van Wees then iced the win with an empty-netter with 34.7 seconds to go.

“In general, it was just a great high school hockey game,” Ridgefield head coach Shaun Gallagher said. “Both teams played really well, both teams wanted it badly, and it could have gone either way.”

“It was a real playoff-type atmosphere,” New Canaan head coach Pat Gore said. “It was back-and-forth, and there were good plays on both ends. Ridgefield was the better team tonight. The positive we can take out of this is that we saw we need to be a little better. We have the speed and we have the talent.

The result likely locks up the FCIAC’s No. 1 seed for Ridgefield, which is now 14-1 overall and 8-0 in the league. New Canaan, which is 11-3 overall and 6-1 in the league, is still in good position to take the No. 2 seed. The top two seeds will receive first-round byes.

Ridgefield had goals from Joe Signorelli, Nick Cullinan, and van Wees, with goalie Sean Keegans collecting 28 saves.

For New Canaan, Gunnar Granito scored with an assist from Quinn Hays, and goalie Peter Windas made 21 saves.

The game was penalty-marred, as the two teams combined for 11 penalties — six on New Canaan and five in Ridgefield.

The Rams held a 29-24 advantage in shots, but Keegans came up with all but one of the stops.

“Sean Keegans is one of the best goalies in the state if not the best,” Gore said. “Against good goalies and good teams, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality. It’s getting guys to drive through the middle and get in the dirty areas where you’re going to score come March. Tonight, it was a little too much individual play and trying to win on skill rather than on team play and puck movement.”

“He not only makes good saves, but he makes shooters have to shoot the puck extremely well,” Gallagher said of Keegans. “He just moves very, very well in the crease.”

Ridgefield took the first five shots of the game, but New Canaan held a 10-8 shots advantage after one period.

That back-and-forth continued into the second period, and the Tigers broke out on top on a top-shelf wrister by Signorelli with 4:28 on the clock.

The Rams generated some good chances over the next couple of minutes, including a play on which Tyler Hill flipped the puck ahead to George McMahon for a break. Keegans thwarted the play with a kick save to keep Ridgefield ahead.

A Tigers’ power play late in the period was turned away, but 11 seconds after the penalty was killed, Cullinan scored, again on a wicked shot just under the crossbar. Jonas Chang assisted on the play, which made it 2-0.

“Both shots were amazing,” Gallagher said. “Both decisions were correct. The D did a good job of letting the shooters shoot, but they just tucked it. The New Canaan goalie played very well tonight and that takes nothing away from him. Those are hard to save.”

New Canaan cut the deficit in half with 12:31 remaining in the game, as Granito sent home a rebound after a slapshot by Hays from the point.

The Rams kept the pressure on for the rest of the game, outshooting the Tigers 10-5 in the final period, but van Wees put the game away with his empty-netter in the final minute.

“It stings,” Gore said of the loss. “Ridgefield was the better team tonight. We know there’s a good chance we’ll see them again down the line, so we’ve just to work to improve and get better. Hopefully, we’ll be there come March.”

Should the two FCIAC powers match up again in the conference playoffs or even the states, the approach will be the same, according to Gallagher.

“Keep it simple, a shift at a time, and you’ve got to work your hardest to beat them,” he said. “They’re not going to roll over; they want to win, too. If they beat us twice, we’d want to win the third time and we just have to play hard and stay focused.”