Boys comeback falls short in state semis
NEW HAVEN -- The underdog story is over. The Darien High School boys hockey team's memorable postseason run came to an end in a 3-2 loss to Hamden High in the Division I state tournament semifinals at Yale's Ingalls Rink on last Thursday.
Darien, the tourney's No. 16 seed, got in only after winning a qualifying round play-in game, yet came oh so close to reaching the championship tilt. The upstart Wave, after knocking off top-seeded West Haven and No. 8 Tri-Town, was right there with the No. 4 Hamden Green Dragons until the final horn, despite being out-shot a whopping 39-9.
The Dragons scored three second-period goals to establish a 3-1 lead heading into the third period and held on to advance to the championship game against No. 2 Fairfield Prep, which it won Saturday night.
"It was all about heart," Darien senior goaltender Will Love said of the team's tourney run.
"We're really young. We showed a lot of heart," junior Richard Gregory added.
Even though the seedings -- and history -- say the Wave didn't belong there (this marked the first time a No. 16 team got to the semis, according to DHS head coach Larry Vieira), that doesn't make the Wave feel any better. After all, the team earned a spot in the semifinals.
"I'm in shock," Love said of the setback.
Hamden had nine of the first 10 shots on goal yet the Wave the struck first -- on its third shot, midway through the opening stanza. Sophomore Cam Murray worked the puck free on a poke check in front of the Hamden goal and Gregory dove for and swatted the puck on goal. Gregory banked a goal off Hamden goalie Ryan Amarone's skate to give the Blue Wave a 1-0 lead.
The goal came with 7:27 left in the first period and was just Darien's third shot of the game. In contrast, Hamden had spent most of the game controlling the puck in the Darien zone and had already peppered Love with nine shots. It got through the pads of Hamden goaltender Ryan Amarone and barely trickled across the goal line.
Darien carried a 1-0 lead into the second period and Love preserved the lead with a toe save on Hamden's Brandon Dadio. Love made numerous sparkling saves throughout the game, including in the Dragons' three-goal second period, during which the No. 4 seed peppered the netminder with 16 shots.
"We played him the first game in the year and it was the same thing. He puts on a show," said Hamden coach Bill Verneris, alluding to a mid-December 2-1 win over Darien. "I voted for him as the best goalie in the state. I don't know if he got it, but I think he's one of the best."
The puck was in Darien's defensive zone for most of the night and Love did everything he could to keep his team in the game. Hamden drew even on a goal by Adam Devine when he spun around and whipped home a shot from in close 2:10 into the middle period (on Hamden's 15th shot). The Dragons took the lead on a goal by James Burt during a 5-on-3 power play opportunity midway through the game. Nick Amarone added a goal moments after Devine hit the cross bar.
Despite finding itself in a two-goal hole with 15 minutes to play, the Wave kept fighting and capitalized on a 5-on-3 man advantage of its own. Sophomore Nick Bruno picked off an errant clearing pass and beat the goalie to his left, lighting the lamp with a shot from the face off circle to the right of Amarone with 8:28 remaining.
"In the beginning of the game we were a little conservative," said Vieira, who came to the Blue Wave after coaching Division II Branford for more than 20 seasons. "We were trying to pick off some Hamden mistakes and they never came. Hamden moved the puck extremely well, they did not let us breathe for one second."
Darien got another power play with 1:42 left but Hamden's speedy P.J. Vakos was tripped near the Wave blue line after gathering a loose puck on the penalty kill. That evened up the man power on the ice and Hamden ran out the clock with puck control deep in the DHS end.
"In the beginning of the game we were pretty conservative. We were just trying to pick off of Hamden's mistakes," Viera said.
The roof caved in the Darien in the second period.
Just 2:10 into the second, Hamden forward Adam Devine put back a shot by Justin MacGregor to tie the game.
At 6:06, with Christian Nielsen in the box for a high stick and Darien teammate Connor Sullivan next to him for tripping, the puck squirted out of Love's glove and Hamden forward Jim Burt put it in the next for a 2-1 Green Dragons lead.
And at 10:08 Hamden put the game out of reach with a goal by sophomore Nick Amarone.
Darien had a golden chance to put Love in a 6-on-4 advantage with 1:42 left in the game, when Hamden defenseman RJ Ugolik went to the box for holding Darien forward Domenik Luongo.
But 10 seconds later, Vakos stole a puck and was tripped by Darien sophomore John Baker, and Darien's potential 6-on-4 was taken away.
"Larry had a fine first year. That's quite a feat to go to the final four," Verneris said. "When you hold a team like that to less than 10 shots, you can't do anything more than that."
The Blue Wave finished its first year under Vieria with a 12-13 record, thanks to its Cinderella postseason run.
"My hats off to Hamden," Vieria said. "They were down 1-0 after the first period and that's the heart of a champion. They literally outworked us for those three goals."
But Hamden didn't cough up the puck or open the door for any DHS opportunities, Vieira noted. And Darien couldn't muster many scoring chances thanks to Hamden's strong effort.
"It was a good team effort. I think our D played well," Verneris said.
Darien will miss seniors Love, Wyatt Keith and Connor Sullivan next year, but everyone else on the roster is a freshman, sophomore or junior. The experience this young team gained in the postseason should prove to be valuable in the coming seasons.
"We have the majority of our team coming back. Every game, every practice we had was gravy. This is a foundation we can build upon," Vieira said.
"We know what it takes to get here. I think we'll be coming hard next year," Gregory added. "We'll turn a lot of heads."
-- Tim Parry contributed to this article.