Darien boys hockey team uses grit and determination to reach state final

Darien's Graf Ely celebrates his goal during the Division I ice hockey semifinals at Bennett Rink, West Haven on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Darien's Graf Ely celebrates his goal during the Division I ice hockey semifinals at Bennett Rink, West Haven on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Pete Paguaga / Hearst Connecticut

The word “grit” comes up often when Darien’s players and coaches describe each Blue Wave victory in this year’s CIAC Division I boys ice hockey tournament.

Having reached the end game with a state final matchup against top-ranked Notre Dame-West Haven, Darien coach Mac Budd spoke about that grit, but also added a small bit of advice for his players..

“Play the game and not the moment.”

The moment comes at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, when the sixth-seeded Blue Wave face off against No. 1 Notre Dame at Quinnipiac University’s People’s United Center in Hamden.

It’s a somewhat unexpected title game appearance for Darien.

The Blue Wave don’t have the star-power it’s had in recent seasons, instead relying on a lunch pail mentality to get wins. They hit several bumps during the regular season and were eliminated from the FCIAC tournament via a 1-0 semifinal loss to eventual champion Ridgefield.

But Darien has turned it on in the Division I playoffs to reach their first state final since 2016, when they defeated Fairfield Prep 4-2 and repeated as state champs.

Darien is taking nothing for granted after the heartbreak of 2020, when the tournament was canceled at the start of the pandemic.

“Our sophomore year, our season got canceled the day of our first game and I’ll never forget the look on those seniors’ faces,” senior co-captain Ryan Spengler said. “We’re playing for ourselves (on Tuesday) but we also have those seniors in our minds as well.”

Team defense, with senior co-captain Chris Schofield in goal, has been key for Darien. In three playoff wins, the Blue Wave have allowed just two goals while beating No. 10 Greenwich 3-0, No. 3 Northwest Catholic 2-1, and No. 2 Xavier 3-1.

“We have a very, very good defense,” Budd said. “It starts in the net on in and (Chris) Schofield has done a tremendous job for us. Over the course of his career, he tends to play well in big games. Our defensemen have been very good defensively and added some offense as well, and the forwards have also bought in (to team defense).”

“We were inconsistent throughout the season but in the playoffs, we’ve really picked it up after the Ridgefield loss,” Schofield said. “Defensively, we’ve been really good, not letting in many goals and we’ve been getting good scoring. We’ve had everyone contributing.”

The Wave and Green Knights know each other well, playing each other twice late in the season. Notre Dame won both times, 3-1 and 4-1, and has just one loss to a Connecticut team this season — a 4-3 overtime defeat against New Canaan on Dec. 23.

“Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the state for a reason,” Darien senior co-captain Billy Branca said. “They’re a great team and they have some great players, some superstars. We definitely think we can come out on top here with grit and determination. All of us are going to be working as one team, one unit, and with that mentality, I think we can push through them.

“We’re just happy we get the chance to battle them for a state championship.”

There’s a connection to the past for the seniors.

Darien reached the state final in three straight seasons from 2014 to 2016, finishing runner-up that first trip before winning consecutive crowns.

Branca said he watched that team through the glass and was inspired by their achievements.

“Hopefully, we can be role models to the younger kids and we’re excited for that,” Branca said. “Hopefully, they can get out there and watch us at Quinnipiac.”