Wilton boys hockey team falls in first round of states

There just had to be some justice for that heart-breaking 1-0 overtime loss to Ridgefield in the penultimate game of the regular season. And there was: The Wilton High boys hockey team made the state tournament.

Never mind that the Warriors finished the regular season with three straight losses and a 5-12-3 record. Thanks to a need for enough teams to fill up a 16-team bracket in Division II, Wilton squeaked into the tournament, gaining the 16th and final slot.

That meant a trip to Cromwell on Tuesday night for a Division II first-round game against top-seed East Catholic. But there was no upset to be had, as the Warriors fell to East Catholic by a score of 9-3.

“There's not a bad kid in that locker room,” a clearly emotional Wilton head coach Brett Amero said of his team after the game at the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell. “They were committed to each other, committed to the game of hockey.

“They worked hard in the off-season. There was not an issue with one player the whole season. I can't remember a team I enjoyed more than this one.”

A 13-day lay-off did not help the Warriors, nor did the fact that this was the first playoff action for many of the Wilton players. Then, too, the East Catholic Eagles (15-5-1) looked every bit a first seed and an odds-on favorite to win the Division II championship.

Sandwiched between two periods of domination during which East Catholic scored seven goals, the Warriors were down but not out and at the end of the second period trailed 5-2.

The Eagles broke out to a 3-0 lead in the first period by taking advantage of multiple Wilton mistakes in its defensive zone. “Defensively, we did not play well enough,” Amero said. “We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of turnovers. We couldn't generate a breakout. We let them hold the puck and just skate around in our end.”

Still, for the game's first 10 minutes, the teams remained scoreless, with Wilton goalie Derek Prario turning back a barrage of East Catholic shots.

Jake McCarthy got the game's initial score, firing home a wrist shot to finish off a two-on-one at 10:44 of the first period. Thirty seconds later, Griffin Casey stole the puck just outside the Warrior blue line and beat Prario unassisted. Lee Munson got the back breaker with only three seconds left in the period when he converted on an odd-man rush, taking fine feeds from McCarthy and Liam Donohue.

The second period saw a stabilized Wilton team take it to the Eagles. Henry Hovland got his first varsity goal, ramming home an unassisted score to make it 3-1 with just 2:30 gone. East Catholic responded quickly, 26 seconds later, when Daniel Lemieux picked up an unassisted tally to up the Eagles' lead to three. But Joey Cullinan answered for Wilton only 37 seconds after that, assisted by Mitch Alexander.

At 4-2, it was a hockey game, but with 3:50 left in the period, Wilton, as it had been and would be all game long, got caught up ice, this time allowing Alex Manner to score the first of his three successive goals on a two-on-one rush. Casey got the assist.

The third period began with the Warriors having a man advantage. Even then, it took spectacular saves by Prario to thwart major short-handed opportunities by the Eagles.

Two even-strength goals by Manner put the game out of reach, although after a time-out, Wilton righted itself a bit with Jack Walsh scoring on an assist from Jameson Hill to make it 7-3 at 7:43 of the third period.

McCarthy got his second goal when a pass deflected off a Warrior skate into the net behind a startled Prario. Finally, with 1:05 remaining in the game, Lemieux got his second score on a feed from Steve Murray.

“We knew the day we found out that we clinched that East Catholic was our opponent,” said Cullinan, a senior captain. “We knew they were good and were a contender to win the whole thing. Tonight, we didn't have it. They were a better team.”

“We had a great season,” said Prario, another captain, who faced 43 shots in goal. “We worked hard and stayed together. We knew a few days after our last regular-season game that we made the states. Everybody was following the [playoff] stats pretty closely. We played hard. We've done that all season, but at the end of the day East Catholic was better than we were.”