West Hartford’s Conard High School qualified for the CCC tournament and will face Tri-Town on Monday. [Updated]
By Paul Palmer
Ahead of the regular season final on Saturday afternoon against the Suffield / Granby / Windsor Locks Co-op (SGWL), the Conard boys’ hockey team knew one thing: lose and they wouldn’t make the tournament. post-season of SFC. A win over the Wildcats and the Chieftains’ chances would improve greatly for playing at least one more game.
Coach Jason Olson’s team took care of the business and in a close game to the end, took the victory 4-2.
“Today was a playoff game for us,” second-year head coach Olson said. His team played the first two periods as if it were indeed a playoff game with solid defense, good hits and a timely score.
The only thing that nearly cost Conard the game was the penalties. They suffered five penalties, including two in the second, giving the Wildcats a 5-3 advantage. A stellar defense led by goaltender Graydon Selstad, and a solid pre-all-day check by Sam Heller, helped Conard avoid giving up on the shorthanded goal. But all that shorthanded time would come back to haunt the Chieftains later in the game.
At first, it seemed like Conard would easily accomplish his mission that day. At 7:47 of the first, Colum Flaherty’s shot was stopped by SGWL goalkeeper Cam Begley, but forward Aidan Shaffer was Johnny on hand to rebound for the 1-0 lead.
The elder, who is second on the team in goals scored, would buzz around the net all day for Conard.
Three minutes after Conard’s goal, he would shoot his first penalty of the day for too many men on the ice. Selstad was strong in front of the net, making a good mitten save, then a big stopper with only: 07 left in the penalty.
Conard’s second goal of the game came on a nasty shot from senior captain and top scorer Owen McGoldrick. He dropped it just inside the point in the left face-off circle, and Begley was beaten for the second time of the day.
The two teams traded penalties midway through the period – a period in which Conard improved his physical play and made some notable defensive plays.
Flaherty – who was easily one of the game’s best three players – interrupted a 2-1 SGWL run when he deflected a pass into his defensive zone, and later Selstad had to bail out one of his teammates with a save and cover the puck after a turnaround from the Chieftains’ side of the ice.
In two periods, Conard was outscored 19-14, with special teams eating away a good chunk of ice time. The penalties against were somewhat mixed for Olson. “We were concerned about the sanctions, but we begged them to be more aggressive.”
The climax of this aggressive play came late in the period when Flaherty sent the Wildcats’ Dylan Gazdik through a partially open door along the SWGL bench. However, that same aggression almost helped turn what looked like a Conard win into a loss in the third period.
It was a group of Chieftains clearly tired of skating outnumbered so often in the first two periods. On the other side, SGWL was amplified, realizing that if they lost the game, they wouldn’t make the postseason tournament.
The Wildcats had the best of the game, just 2:36 in the period, they would score their first goal of the game on a wild game. In a face-off to the right of Selstad’s goal, the puck was thrown into Conard’s net by a crowd of players. The puck managed to find the back of the net, but Conard’s players immediately claimed a no-goal as they believed he had been deflected with a high stick. The officials spoke briefly in the middle of the ice and decided it was a good goal, and the lead was only 2-1 for Conard.
For much of the remainder of the period, SGWL controlled the flow of play, with Conard showing brief offensive flashes but not getting many good scoring chances. With 3:04 to go, McGoldrick would get his second goal of the game, the 19th of the season, when he picked up a loose puck in the left circle, skated on Begley and went high, stick-side to cover the 3-1 goal. The Chieftains’ joy was short-lived, as less than a minute later, Jordan Blais of the Wildcats hit a rebound with a Tyler Mackowski shot, and it was once again a 1-goal game.
With just under 90 seconds to go, SWGL would shoot Begley for the extra skater. The Wildcats looked dangerous with their passes and possessions in the offensive zone, but with just 1.5 seconds to go, Conard would put an end to any doubts.
SGWL was pressing the offense with the extra skater, when the puck shot out of the zone and Conard’s Jack Wenz chased it down the boards, skated on the center ice fighting a desperate charge from a Wildcats player and sailed the puck through the net for the 4-2 final.
The win was Conard’s sixth this season in just 11 games, a far cry from a side that was 2-16-1 a season ago. Olson, who took over the squad with six games to go last season, was quick to credit his players for the turnaround. “We have made a lot of progress towards a good hockey team. They have come a long way and have agreed to play to win, ”he said.
While Conard’s ranking above .500 this season should secure them a place in the first round of the league tournament, they have to wait for the results of some other games on Saturday before they know for sure.
Late Saturday night, the team received the good news, and No.5 seeded Conard will face No.4 seed Tri-Town on Monday in the CCC South tournament. The winner of this match will advance to the semi-finals to face the number one team Hall-Southington. The Warrior Knights got a goodbye in the first round.
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