Close contests are nothing new for the Fairfield co-op boys ice hockey team. The Fairfield Warde/Fairfield Ludlowe combined team came into Monday's clash with the Milford co-op skaters at Wonderland Of Ice in Bridgeport having been involved in seven one-goal nail-biters.
Make it eight. Fairfield was nipped 1-0 by Milford in a battle of teams vying to qualify for state tournament play. Milford locked up its ticket with victory number eight as the visitors made a second-period tally stand up to improve to 8-6-1. Fairfield dropped to 6-9-0 on its Senior Night.
One year after the team said goodbye to 13 seniors, a group of six 12th-graders were honored: Captain Conor Scharlop and fellow Warde players Austin Armas, Alex Powning and Rett Adinolfi, along with Ludlowe's Matthew Stern and captain Jack O'Rourke.
On Senior Night, when the soon-to-be departing players were celebrated, an up-and-comer stole the show. Sophomore goalie Mike Grace stood tall, kicking aside nearly two-dozen shots to keep his Fairfield teammates in the game all the way until a waning-seconds clear by Milford squelched the Fairfielders hopes of forcing overtime. The netminder was pulled with a minute and a half left and Fairfield already on a power play, but the rare 6-on-4 advantage didn't lead to any true threats.
Milford didn't do anything too fancy -- get the puck deep, forecheck, and have a physical presence -- but it was enough to win.
"I think, pretty much, they played a much simpler game than we did. They got the puck deep and played physical when the time called for it," Fairfield coach Mark Pettorini said. "For the most part, they outhustled us in this game."
Pettorini has an overall young lineup -- the 21-player roster features nine sophomores -- and the coach was pleased with the effort of his up-and-coming players. "A lot of young guys are playing well," he said.
But the coach believes his group doesn't play to its collective capability all the time. He said it turns the switch on and off, and that the switch needs to stay on for it to succeed.
"It's a matter of work ethic and just moving their feet," Pettorini said.
Fairfield is now 4-4 in those one-goal contests, and Grace doesn't mind the pressure situations.
"It's disappointing we lost, but it's still fun playing in close games," Grace said.
Fairfield is hoping to eke out a playoff spot as the regular season winds down. "I still think we can do it," said Grace, whose squad needs two more wins with four to play, assuming a Feb. 14 contest with New Canaan, postponed by snow, is rescheduled. Fairfield also has remaining contests with Trinity Catholic, of Stamford, Branford, and Amity, of Woodbridge.
Armas and his younger brother, sophomore Tiger, had the thrill of having their dad, United States Marines Lt. Col. Tom Armas, on hand. He was deployed from the Middle East and took the opportunity for a layover to visit with family on his way back to California. Armas left home in July and was thrilled to see his sons on the ice. He's seen both sons play a lot of hockey, but not much of both of them skating at once.
"I've been waiting for a long time to watch them play together," he said.
Andy Hutchison is a freelance reporter