State's best: Ridgefield wins first-ever D1 title

For the first time in program history, the Ridgefield boys hockey team is the undisputed king of Connecticut high school hockey.

Scoring three unanswered goals in the first and third periods, the second-seeded Tigers defeated top-seed Northwest Catholic, 6-2, in the Division I state championship game Monday night at Yale University's Ingalls Rink.

It's the first Division I title for Ridgefield, which won a Division II state championship back in 2002.

"This is the culmination of four years of hard work," said defensemen Harrison Chuma, one of Ridgefield's 11 senior players. "This was what we were working for."

"It's an amazing feeling," added senior goalie Sean Keegans, who finished with 30 saves. "We wanted to be the first [Ridgefield] team to win the D1 title and we accomplished that goal. We made history tonight."

"It’s emotional," said Ridgefield head coach Shaun Gallagher, whose team also won the FCIAC championship and ended the season with a 24-2-0 record. "I’m so happy for the kids. I can’t tell you how hard they worked, how they refused to let anyone take this away.”

The Tigers stated their intentions soon after the opening face-off, with senior winger Matteo van Wees forcing Northwest Catholic goalie Cal Skwara to make three early saves. Northwest then carried the next few minutes before Ridgefield scored three goals in 24 seconds to take a 3-0 lead.

Sophomore Nick Cullinan got the first goal, stuffing a pass from linemate Will Forrest past Skwara. Forrest took a backhand that went wide, skated behind the net and dispossessed a Northwest player before sending the feed that Cullinan deposited.

Thirteen seconds later, the Tigers went ahead 2-0 as van Wees scored on the rebound of Jeff Pracella's shot. Nine seconds after that the lead swelled to 3-0, with van Wees sweetly setting up Pracella for another Ridgefield goal.

Northwest Catholic killed off three penalties that gave the Tigers portions of two 5-on-3 power plays in the second period. The Lions followed the impressive defensive stand with goals on superb individual efforts from Anthony Ceolin and Paul Arel five minutes apart to close within 3-2. Arel's goal came with just 60 seconds left in the second period.

Northwest looked to carry its late second-period dominance into the final 15 minutes, but it was Ridgefield that struck first. Jack Stafford skated into the Lions' zone and cut into the slot before nearly colliding with a Northwest defenseman. Forrest gathered the loose puck and beat Skwara with a quick release, putting the Tigers in front 4-2, with just 53 seconds gone in the third period.

"Will Forrest's goal was huge," said Ridgefield head coach Shaun Gallagher. "Northwest Catholic had all the momentum entering the final period, so that goal was the biggest one of the game. It got us back on track."

Stafford was rewarded for his hard work, particularly on the forecheck, when he converted a rebound with 8:46 to play. Van Wees then made it 6-2 by scoring on a wicked wrist shot from the left side with 2:20 remaining.

The game got chippy after that, as a pile-up and skirmish in front of the Northwest net resulted in two penalties per team. But the Tigers kept their composure in the final moments, and when the final buzzer sounded they poured over the boards and mobbed Keegans, setting off a championship celebration worthy of history makers.

Notes: Van Wees had two goals and an assist for Ridgefield. Cullinan, Forrest and Stafford each added one goal and two assists. Jack McGeary, Jonas Chang and Pracella contributed one assist apiece.

Top-line center Landon Byers orchestrated much of Ridgefield's pressure and had several pinpoint passes, a few of which set up linemate van Wees for blistering shots on goal.

Skwara made 28 saves for Northwest, which was also playing in its first Division I state final. The Lions ended the season with a 21-4-1 record.

Ridgefield's defensemen — Chuma, McGeary, Chang, Ty Fujitani, Andrew Tregurtha and Liam Galloway — did what they have done all season: Keep opposing forwards wide and block shots.

Although it didn't score, the Tigers' third line of Joe Signorelli, Matt Walker and Charlie Luft was instrumental in wearing down Northwest Catholic's defense.

In an unscripted moment of sportsmanship, Northwest Catholic forward Ryan Sherba skated over and gave Keegans a fist bump after Keegans came up with a stellar save on Sherba's screened shot in the second period.