Heading into the Southern Connecticut Conference/South West Conference Division II final on Saturday, Cheshire High School ice hockey head coach Anthony Giusto was looking to execute a defensive game plan against North Haven.
The Rams held their rival scoreless early at West Haven’s Bennett Rink, but the Indians used a single sequence to pave the way to victory. Third-seeded NH (8-2) broke through to score twice in the final four minutes of the second period and added another goal in the third to pick up a 3-0 victory over Cheshire (fifth seed, 5-6).
Senior Aaron Racino and junior Jake Hines both contributed to all three goals.
“We felt that we were playing well through the second, but they made a push to get the lead at the end of the period. You need to give them credit,” stated Giusto.
CHS entered the title game on a five-game win streak, but were unable to score against NH senior Andrew Sacco. After making 20 saves in the shutout, Sacco was anmed Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
“He is a great goalkeeper,” said Giusto. “We put pucks on net today, but knew that it would be tough to score on him.”
At the outset, Cheshire and NH both had scoring chances, but Sacco and junior goalkeeper Amaan Chaudhry kept the game scoreless in the first period. NH had a golden opportunity when the puck drifted past Chaudhry, but freshman defenseman Ryan Fraser made a diving deflection in front of the goal mouth with 10:45 remaining in the first.
“I was laying on the ground and saw the puck drifting toward the net. I dove for it and so did (sophomore) Lukas Sargolini,” explained Fraser. “I was glad that we were able to clear the puck.”
At the time, Giusto felt that it was important to hold NH scoreless in the first period.
“Ryan made a big play to make that save for us,” said Giusto.
The game remained scoreless until the Indians broke through with 3:04 left in the second. After a turnover, Hines sent the puck to Racino, who netted the goal.
The Rams looked to bounce back, but with 39 seconds remaining in the second, they received the game’s first penalty for slashing. With the power-play advantage, NH extended their lead to 2-0 on a goal by junior Justin Pniewski with 6.5 seconds left in the period. Hines and Racino picked up assists.
“That was a tough goal to give up at the end of the period,” reflected Giusto.
Just 36 seconds into the third, CHS received their first power play on a tripping penalty, but NH held them scoreless during the sequence.
“With the goalkeeper they have, we knew that we would have to take advantage of that power play,” recalled Giusto. “They put a lot of pressure on the puck and didn’t give us a lot of good looks.”
The Indians found the back of the net one more time, as Hines scored on a pass from Racino with 8:59 left.
The intensity picked up in the final minutes. With 3:48 remaining, a fight broke out and both teams had two players penalized for roughing.
Cheshire tried to make a final push, but fell to the Indians for the second time this winter. Like Sacco, Chaudhry finished with 20 saves in the title game.
This winter, Chaudhry succeeded 2020 graduate and three-year starter Nick Maringola as starting goalkeeper for the Rams.
“He battled all season and did a great job for us,” said Aidan Gaudet, a senior assistant captain with Thor Novicelli. “We had a lot of younger guys get experience this year and that will help them next season.”
To reach the finals, Cheshire battled to win 4-3 over top-seeded Lyman Hall on March 24 at Northford Ice Pavilion. CHS jumped out to a 3-0 lead and held off a late rally to get the victory.
Cheshire started their late-season surge after falling 5-1 to LH on March 6.
In contrast to the first meeting when the Trojans netted four power-play goals and took a 5-0 lead, the Rams never trailed in the rematch and killed off all of their rival’s four power plays.
“Our message was that we had to stay out of the (penalty) box. They scored on four of five power plays in the first game,” said Giusto. “This time, I thought we did a great job of pressuring and not allowing them to get into a rhythm.”
With 3:29 remaining in the first period, the Rams jumped ahead on a goal by sophomore Will Gaudet. Junior Damon Zurolo and senior captain Niklas Vasiljevs picked up assists.
“It was good to get the first goal. That got us pumped up,” said Gaudet.
CHS extended their lead in the second. With 11:19 left, freshman Evan Vasiljevs scored the second goal from Aidan Gaudet.
“We’ve been pushing all year how important it is score early,” stated Giusto. “We are a different team when we play with a lead.”
Cheshire picked up the third goal with 8:39 remaining in the second. Following passes from Novicelli and Evan Vasiljevs, Aidan Gaudet put the puck in the back of the net.
Down 3-0, the Trojans battled back in the third period. In the span of 1:01, junior Dylan Gay and senior Ryan Brockett netted goals to cut the deficit to a single goal.
“They came back fast after we went up 3-0,” reflected Giusto. “Before the game, if you had told me that we would have had a one-goal lead with 10 minutes left, I would taken it. I told the guys that we had to finish the game.”
LH had seized momentum, but they were penalized for tripping with 8:58 left. CHS capitalized on the power play, as Novicelli scored the eventual game-winner (4-2) from Niklas Vasiljevs.
“I came around the net and saw an opening, so I took a shot,” said Novicelli. “It was huge to take back momentum.”
Gay netted his second goal with 2:50 remaining to cut the deficit to 4-3. LH pulled senior goalie Brendan Reddington (18 saves), but the Rams withstood the pressure to pick up the win and earn a split of the season series.
LH outshot CHS 26-22 (12-2 in the third period), however Chaudhry came up clutch with 23 saves.
“It felt great to shut them out for two periods,” reflected Chaudhry. “We got some unlucky bounces of the puck in the third, but still held on to get the win.”
Giusto was proud of the way the Rams persevered this year. CHS started at 0-5 and spent two weeks in quarantine at one point, but ended the year on a 5-1 stretch.
“It has been a weird year,” stated Giusto. “Starting out 0-5 was tough, but the kids really battled to get us to the finals. Our goal every year is to play on the last day of the season and we accomplished that today.”
“I feel that a lot of teams would have packed it in at 0-5, but everyone stepped up to help us win five games in a row,” added Novicelli.
The Rams will graduate a deep class of Niklas Vasiljevs, Aidan Gaudet, Novicelli, Michael Caron, Michael Donato, Mark Lindner, and Cullen Wiley. The group has contributed heavily on varsity for multiple years.
“We are all friends and got really close with everyone this year,” said Niklas Vasiljevs. “I think that these bonds will last forever.”