After Ridgefield boys hockey defeated Northwest Catholic Monday in the Division I final, senior forward Ryan Sherba did his best to describe how his team's high-scoring offense had been slowed down for the first time all year.
"The biggest thing I noticed was they were backchecking hard," Sherba said. "Any time I got the puck I had a defender. I had a guy coming from left. I had guy from my right. There is only so much you can do there."
Northwest Catholic-West Hartford had averaged three or more goals a game this season. But in the championship, second-seeded Ridgefield did something no team had done this year: it held the top-seeded Lions' offense at bay. Behind 30 saves from senior goalie Sean Keegans and a defense first game plan, second-seeded Ridgefield beat Northwest Catholic 6-2 at Ingalls Rink for the program's first title.
"That was our goal — we wanted it to be less than three" Ridgefield coach Shaun Gallagher said. "We were talking about that [before the game]. We knew we would have a really good chance to win if we kept [senior Ryan Sherba] off the board and if we kept the team down to three."
Ridgefield won a Division II title in 2002, but hadn't played in a Division I final.
"We wanted it so badly — the kids wanted it so badly," Gallagher said. "To beat Fairfield Prep in the quarterfinals was incredible and that gave us some huge momentum boost. For the the town of Ridgefield, the school, the community, for all the youth coaches that worked with these kids, the families driving all over the place — it is special to a lot of people."
Northwest Catholic (21-4-1) had made it 3-2 to start the final period, but Ridgefield added three goals in the third. Matteo van Wees had two goals and Jack Stafford had a goal and two assists for the Tigers (24-2). Jeff Pracella, Nick Cullinan and Will Forest also had goals.
"[Ridgefield] played a great game, kudos to Ridgefield for coming up with a game plan," Northwest Catholic coach Don Melanson said. "They had three solid lines, played great defense, had big guys and a great goalie."
In a reverse of their last few tournaments games, the Lions were forced to play catch-up from the start.
About 11 minutes into the final, Ridgefield scored three goals in a 24-second span to take charge with a 3-0 lead. Nick Cullinan scored with 4:01 left, Matteo van Wees scored 15 seconds later and Jeff Pracella capped off the surge with 3:37 left.
"They definitely were just taking advantage of our mistakes," Northwest Catholic senior Kevin Eustis said. "Every mistake we had they took advantage of."
Still, Northwest Catholic tried to stay positive.
"It just goes to show how tough these guys are," Melanson said. "They are true competitors. They were really able to play hard."
In losses to New Canaan and Notre Dame-West Haven, the Lions fell behind by four goals and had to fight back into the game. But just as it was in the regular season, the comeback attempts proved too be too much.
After Anthony Ceolin and Paul Arel scored a pair of goals in the third period to make it 3-2, Ridgefield scored 53 seconds into the third period to put the Lions back on their heels once again.
"We had some momentum going into the third period, thought we had it in control and thought we were going to make something happen, but they're pretty persistent," Sherba said.
With momentum back on their side, the Tigers refused to let it go. Jack Stafford made it 5-2 with 8:46 left in the period off a rebound in close and van Wees finished the scoring with 2:20 left.