First FCIAC title since '07

STAMFORD -- Two goals, one for each sister, who helped build up on the dynasty at New Canaan High School three years ago.

And now, she joins them in New Canaan lore and no longer feels the pressure that was self-inflicted.

Pretty remarkable how much weight Olivia Hompe put on her shoulders, considering she's only 14 years old.

Hompe scored the first two goals for the Rams and assisted on the third to get the FCIAC girls hockey title back to New Canaan after a three-year absence. New Canaan avenged last year's loss by defeating the team that defeated them -- who else -- Darien. The 3-0 victory at Terry Conners Rink was convincing, cleansing and cathartic.

The last time the Rams won it, Hompe's older sisters, Sandra and Eliza, were on the team.

"Xandra, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime, and Eliza scored three to tie the game," Rams head coach Rich Bulan recalled. "We had another Hompe tonight winning the MVP award. How great is that?"

Two and a half minutes in, after the Rams had camped out in Darien's zone early, Hompe scored to give New Canaan a 1-0 lead.

"That jump-started the game," Shelby Barada said. "We knew it was possible from there."

Hompe came down on the wing, took it wide on the defense and had a last-second change of plans when deciding to take her shot on Darien goalie Katharine Macomber.

"I think they weren't expecting it because I usually cut back to the middle," Hompe said. "Then I had the lane, and I know she's a great goalie and really good up top -- and I usually shoot up top -- so I decided to put it low on her far pad."

Boom. A one-goal lead, just like that. It's all New Canaan would need, but it would still get more. Bulan admitted he was taken aback by how frequently his team was roaming the Blue Wave's zone.

"We score the first one, then Madzie Carroll comes out of her defensive position and almost scores," Bulan said. "Then Olivia DOES score another one and I thought, Wait a minute, we're putting a lot more pressure on them than we usually do."

The Rams took a 2-0 lead 2:37 into the second period on a power-play goal. Bea Eppler was on the side, by the boards, and curled back around. She passed the puck over to Hompe, who was waiting for the one-timer.

"I think she (Macomber) was screened," Hompe said.

She was indeed, and the shot went waist high and zipped past Macomber.

"She plays like an adult, she acts like an adult, she's got a ton of maturity," Bulan said of Hompe, who has been imbedded the starting front line alongside Eppler and Jana Persky.

"Jana Persky and Bea Eppler were the perfect fit for her," he added. "They let her go, let her be herself. They said, `Listen, we'll do what we can because we're going to win.' ... A lot these upperclassmen take these kids under their wing. We have a saying here: When you come here, you're not a freshman. You're just a part of New Canaan High School girls ice hockey."

The game reached its final score with 6:45 to go in the third. The Rams were shorthanded, but just as Eppler was coming out of the penalty box Hompe lifted the puck 20 feet down the ice, reaching a speeding Eppler, who lured Macomber far enough out of the crease that one deke fooled the Blue Wave goalie and gave the Rams their ultimate score.

"The coaches were very helpful," Hompe said. "I could hear them yelling, `She's coming out! She's coming out!' I knew I had to get it over the day and I backhanded up there and Bea made a great play after that."

Gurney said: "That's just bad luck right there. The puck's coming, she's out of the box and gets behind you. Right place, right time. That was kind of the nail right there."

Darien (16-5-1) hadn't allowed three goals since a 3-2 loss to Ridgefield Dec. 21.

It's New Canaan's fourth FCIAC title in six finals appearances, and Bulan admitted Saturday's championship did fill a void for the jubilant Rams.

"This is our sixth 20-win season in the last nine years," Bulan said after the Rams improved to 20-1 overall and 14-1 in league. "Our rallying point this season was to let our seniors go out the same way they started their high school career. Charlotte won an FCIAC and a state title as a freshman goalie. There aren't many others who can say that."

For seniors Barada and Kelsey Durkin, who had a 24-0 freshman year, the bookended titles to their FCIAC careers end on the happiest of notes against the most fitting of opponents.

"We felt this was the year to bring the team back to what it used to be," Barada said.

"We were so excited to actually be here," Durkin added. "You come into the games, you're almost so focused [in the conference qualifiers] that tell yourself, `What if we don't even make it?' But it was such an upset these past two years, to get back here and win was great."

Bulan said he expected his team to win entering the game, but despite New Canaan's dominance all season season long he didn't look too far ahead.

"You could take Darien, us, Simsbury, Greenwich, Hamden, throw us all in a hat and pull us out and you're going to get an equal game every time," Bulan said. "We never thought [an FCIAC title] was a forgone conclusion."

At 2-0, the game turned, as the officials couldn't stop blowing their whistles and calling penalties. While New Canaan hit a post and Darien hit a crossbar, the officials blew play dead with 10.8 seconds left in the second period as Darien apparently scored off a scramble. The goal was disallowed.

Darien coach Al Gurney was gracious, if not a little frustrated, in defeat.

"I think penalties were a big factor in the game," Gurney said. "You could never get your feet going. You could never get into the game after the first period. ... There was one goal down here. Even one official told me it went in. The other told me it didn't. Well, why's he blowing the whistle when the puck's going into the net? That's not good officiating. Obviously it would've been 2-1 at that point. It could've changed [New Canaan's] attitude."

Still, after the almost-goal, New Canaan was called for two penalties just one second later. That gave Darien a 5-on-3 advantage for the opening 1:50 of the third period.

"There's a saying that a 2-0 lead is the hardest lead to keep in hockey," Durkin said. "So we told ourselves, Look, we're in a great position but we can't let up because they're going to come out very hard."

Charlotte Spitzfaden, yet again, came up big in a big spot. She had 13 saves in the second period and eight more in the third as she was flawless against the wave of Darien power plays. She finished with 31 saves in all to earn her ninth shutout of the season, her 63rd career win and 34th career shutout.

"It'd be nice to come off the ice and say, `We should've won the game, you played well enough to win' but we didn't," Gurney said. "They were the better team and deserving of the championship. We had our power-play opportunities that we didn't capitalize on."

Macomber (29 saves) was acrobatic in net but the forearm she delivered to Hompe at the final buzzer is sure to be remembered if these foes meet yet again in the state tournament.

The Darien coach praised how fluidly the Rams are able to move on the ice and so rarely get flustered whenever the rubber is in their possession.

"They're just better with the puck," Gurney said. "They move and cycle well. They make smart decisions. Their quickness and their ability to protect the puck is their strength."

While many Rams celebrated inside and outside of the locker room while talking about the state title game that awaited them two days later, one player took in the moment, exhaling more than just a deep breath.

"I guess I can stop feeling the pressure to live up to my sisters and what they did," Hompe said. "I'm just really happy for the seniors because they came in [their freshman year] with an FCIAC title and now they can go out with one."

-- Rich DePreta contributed to this article.