Darien, Prep battle for Division I boys hockey title
For the better part of the last three months, Darien has been the consensus top-rated team in Division I Connecticut boys hockey.
Back during the infancy of this season, the Blue Wave collected multiple wins against highly ranked and regarded competition, including a 1-0 victory over defending champion Fairfield Prep. Darien beat the Jesuits again in a 3-2 overtime effort.
Yet since then, Prep has battled back, and now the Jesuits are ready to defend their state crown after reaching their fourth final in five years. There's just one problem. The Blue Wave awaits them, determined to win the school's first championship since 1969.
Beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, No. 3 Fairfield Prep (15-4-3) and No. 4 Darien (22-3-1) will clash for the Division I boys hockey state championship at Ingalls Rink in New Haven. After surviving a 4-3 overtime thriller against No. 2 Notre Dame-West Haven in the semifinals, the Jesuits now aim for back-to-back state titles. The Blue Wave dispatched No. 1 seed Notre Dame-Fairfield 3-1 on Wednesday to advance to its first final since 1987.
"I put together probably one of the strongest schedules in program history," Darien coach Chris Gerwig said. "We played Prep twice and Notre Dame-West Haven three times, since we scrimmaged them to start the year. To have the results we did against them is pretty rewarding. We've just got to finish it on Saturday."
Heading into the title game, both squads will carry quality depth at each end and multiple All-State honorees. Fairfield Prep is led by first-team forward Matt Wikman, who scored the game-winner in his team's semifinal victory, and junior defenseman Brendan Killoy. All-State first-team member Tommy Watters tops the scoring chart for Darien, which wouldn't have reached the final without second-team All-State goalie Michael Colon.
Colon has allowed only three goals in the tournament, while Watters has collected three goals and an assist.
"They are really good," Prep coach Matt Sather said. "Their depth, discipline and experience create a stability that is tough to match. Coach Gerwig really knows his stuff and his kids always seem to be in the right spot."
Darien senior Robbie Juterbock was in the best spot of any player during the Blue Wave's 1-0 win over Prep on Dec. 21, when he fired a one-timer past Jesuit goalie Chris Gutierrez. The teams combined for a paltry 31 shots that night, a far cry from their second meeting.
Six weeks later, Prep had raced out to a 2-0 lead in the first period before Darien fought to tie the game with a Jack Pardue score in the middle frame and a Watters' goal with 6:35 left. Moments into the extra session, senior defenseman Nick Allam won the contest with a score of his own.
Allam captains a strong Blue Wave defense that will undoubtedly have its hands full against a balanced Prep attack. Eight Jesuits have scored in the state tournament as Fairfield Prep featured four different goal scorers against Hamden, Glastonbury and Notre Dame-West Haven. Senior Dean Lockery recorded three assists during that stretch, working as part of arguably the best first-line in the entire state.
"It's going to have to be a perfect game for us," Gerwig said. "We can't make a mistake in all three zones against a team like Prep."
The Jesuits are seeking their 16th title all-time, while a Darien win would mean the program's first championship since 1969.
More Information3 KEYS TO VICTORY
BATTLE FOR THE NEUTRAL ZONE: Darien wants to cross the red line with possession, throw the puck deep in Prep's zone and make the Jesuits defense work. Prep wants to win loose pucks in neutral space with its speed to counter Darien's dump-and-chase strategy. Each team should earn a number of quality offensive chances by way of talent alone, but the squad that can control center ice will hold a consistent, significant advantage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Prep allowed Notre Dame-West Haven and Glastonbury to come back in the last two rounds by handing over multiple power play opportunities late in the game. Meanwhile, Darien executed a penalty-free game against Notre Dame-Fairfield in the semifinals, as the FCIAC's regular-season champion continued a very clean playoff run. On the biggest of stages, the margin for error is at its very smallest, and unless Prep changes its recent ways, the Blue Wave may have an edge here.
PREP'S GOALTENDING: For the majority of this season, the Jesuits have alternated between seniors Matt Beck and Chris Gutierrez between the pipes. Each netminder allowed three scores in his latest performance, though coach Matt Sather is quick to acknowledge that most of the goals Prep has given up in the playoffs were neither Beck's nor Gutierrez's fault. Should Saturday's starter struggle, will Sather go to his other goalie? In the two Darien-Prep meetings this season, the Blue Wave scored all four of their goals against Gutierrez.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tommy Watters, senior forward: The senior captain has recorded a point in seven straight games and won't be slowing down on the biggest of stages.
Robbie Juterbock, senior forward: Juterbock, who scored the only goal in Darien's 1-0 victory over Prep back in December, is one of the best passers on a deep Blue Wave team.
Nick Tuzinkiewicz, junior defenseman: An underrated cog in the Darien defense, Tuzinkiewicz creates offense from the blue line and will be relied upon to help slow Prep's vaunted attack.
Matt Wikman, senior forward: Wikman, a first-team All-State honoree, is arguably the best player in the Connecticut. For Darien, there will be no getting around his immense offensive ability.
Dean Lockery, senior forward: Another skilled Jesuit forward, Lockery owns six points thus far through the tournament, including the opening goal in Prep's semifinal win over Notre Dame-West Haven.
Will Schlitig, sophomore forward: The second-year scoring threat is playing the best hockey of his life heading into the biggest game of his young career.