St. Joseph hockey iced by New Canaan, 6-2, in playoff primer

With eight goals in total and six on New Canaan’s side of the ledger, Wednesday’s boys ice hockey game between the Rams and the St. Joseph Cadets has the look of an offensive shootout.

It’s hard to believe it was a defensive play in the first period that set the foundation for a New Canaan victory at the Darien Ice Rink.

Goalie Liam Mooney stoned Adam Usinger on a penalty shot with 6:14 left in the first period, and the Rams eventually rediscovered their scoring touch for a 6-2 win, getting a boost in the FCIAC and state standings.

“They came to work today,” New Canaan head coach Pat Gore said. “Our biggest coaching point all year has been the work ethic and this was by far the hardest working game we’ve had all year. I don’t even think the score shows how hard we worked. If we can play this kind of game night-in and night-out, we can beat anybody.”

Meanwhile, St. Joseph was getting back into action after several days of drama revolving around a melee in its 3-0 win over Trinity Catholic on Saturday. Four players drew suspensions, including gpalie Dylan Batterson, and with their backup goalie also injured, the Cadets forfeited their scheduled game against Darien on Monday.

They skated onto the ice with plenty of energy but the Rams pulled away in the final two periods.

“We came out with a little bit of jump but unfortunately, there were times where we lacked a little bit of effort,” Cadets’ head coach J.R. Bria said. “It’s high school hockey — It’s which team is going to work harder. They’re all high school boys and they’re all out with the same goal: To win a hockey game. It’s just who comes more prepared and who works harder. Tonight, they got the best of us.”

Offensively, it was a great game for the Rams (10-5-3 overall, 8-1-2 FCIAC), who had goals from five different players. Tyler Hill scored twice, including one short-handed, while senior co-captain Patrick Hompe, Kyle Mettler, Parker Lewis, and Max Begoon also hit the back of the net. Mooney made 13 saves against 15 shots.

St. Joe’s (9-7-1, 8-3-0) had goals from defenseman Justice Cook and Will Foldesi, while goalie Dylan Batterson collected 35 saves against 41 shots.

Given New Canaan’s dearth of scoring lately, Mooney’s save on the penalty shot was a huge lift for the Rams’ morale.

Usinger skated in and swept to the left, attempting to tuck the puck inside the left pipe. Mooney slid with the play and kicked the shot away to deny the goal.

“That was big,” Gore said. “It was magnified with how we’ve been playing lately. Normally, if we go down 1-0 on that penalty shot, we might play it back, but that could’ve turned our players attitude the wrong way. That won us the game. I told our kids, go up 1-0 and we’ll score six or seven. But if we go down 1-0, you never know what might happen.”

“Our goalies (Mooney and Peter Windas) have gotten strong as the year goes on, and each of them as been equally good,” Hompe said. “Seeing a sophomore stand up and keep us in the game early was definitely inspiring and got our team going.”

Just moments after play resumed, Mooney had to make another kick save in almost the exact same spot, as he was screened on a low rocket from the point by Cook. At the last moment, Mooney got his leg out and again kicked the puck away.

New Canaan struck for the first goal with 1:33 elapsed in the second, when Mettler knocked in a rebound of a shot by Lewis.

The Cadets didn’t take long to answer, as Cook scored the equalizer with an assist from Usinger just one minute and 16 seconds later.

The Rams regained the lead during a power play at 8:33, when Hompe dumped the puck back to Begoon at the blue line. The defenseman’s slapshot clinked off the crossbar and went high into the net for a 2-1 New Canaan advantage.

St. Joe’s missed a golden opportunity to tie the score when Chris Kirven and Foldesi had a two-on-one break. Kirven carried the puck into the New Canaan zone and tapped it across to Foldesi, but Mooney made a great stop to his right, sending the puck into the corner and ending the threat.

Late in the period, Katz won a faceoff in the offensive zone and got the puck to Hill behind the Cadets’ net. Hill skated out the opposite side and fed the puck to Hompe, who sent a one-timer into the goal for a 3-1 game with 13.8 seconds in the clock.

“If we go into the third period in a 2-1 game, it’s a lot different,” Bria said. “We always tell our guys, the last two minutes of a period, be defensive-minded, no mistakes. Unfortunately, they got one on us in the last 13 seconds and that was the back-breaker. It was tough to come back from that.”

“We struggled to score in the first period and we had plenty of chances,” Hompe said. “Coach told us to keep moving as fast as we could and if we kept getting puck to the net, we were going to score goals. I hadn’t scored in a while, I’ve been passing it off and stuff, so that was big.”

A wild series early in the third saw the two teams score three goals in a span of one minute and nine seconds.

Hill got the party started with an assist from Mettler at the 2:45 mark. At 3:43, Foldesi responded with an unassisted goal, but 11 seconds later, Lewis scored for New Canaan with an assist from J.P. McMahon for a 5-2 lead.

“The most important shift is right after you score or you get scored on,” Bria said. “We got scored on and we responded with a goal. Unfortunately, they responded back.”

Hill then put the final touches on the Rams’ victory when he picked the pocket of a Cadet defenseman, skated in at Battinger, deked low, and flipped a back-hand shot into the net for a short-handed goal with 6:39 remaining.

“We did well on the power play and the penalty kill,” Hompe said. “Max (Begoon) has been out for a while, but he came back and scored a power play goal, which was good because our power play’s been struggling a little bit. It all sort of came together today.”

With one meeting in the books, New Canaan and St. Joseph could meet again shortly as they could line up with each other in the 4-5 game of the FCIAC quarterfinals on Feb. 28.

“If we play each other again at the end of next week, we just need to bring that same work ethic,” Gore said. “Playoff hockey is different than regular season hockey, especially in the FCIAC. You see everyone during the year anyway, so you know what’s everybody’s about. In the FCIAC tournament, it’s win or go home, so we have to be ready. We need to go and match our intensity next week.”