Recommended Video:

Being a defending champion comes with it’s own unique challenges.

When you’re beset with injuries and illnesses, and face a difficult schedule to open a new season, those challenges are magnified.

Such was the case for the New Canaan girls ice hockey team, which had a huge bull’s-eye on its back after winning FCIAC and state titles last year, and kicked off this season with a match-up against Simsbury, a clear state challenger and the team the Rams had beaten in last year’s CHSGCA semifinals. The Trojans took that contest in a thriller, 3-2, and New Canaan also lost to Greenwich, 4-1, in the annual Winter Classic outdoors at the Greenwich Skating Club.

Don’t look now, but after that relatively slow 3-2 start, the Rams are on a tear.

New Canaan had a great week as it won three FCIAC games in a span of five days, including a 1-0 shutout of rival Darien on Jan. 4, and a 4-1 win over Greenwich on Jan. 9. With a 5-1 victory over Ridgefield/Danbury sandwiched in-between, the Rams are suddenly 8-2-1 overall and, at 7-0 in official FCIAC play, have nailed down the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament in February.

“Right now, that’s been the turning point of our season,” Bulan said of the recent wins. “Those were two huge games and we knew we had to do something in order to establish an identity if we were going to be taken seriously this year.

“We did what we had to do against Darien and Greenwich and I’m very proud of the way they took it from there.”

The Rams have started to get healthy as well, with one of the biggest additions being the return of junior McKenna Harden, the team’s top returning defender, who missed the first six games with an injury.

Harden came back for the Darien contest and the defense was key as the Rams earned the shutout. With five minutes remaining in the second period, sophomore Jade Lowe scored the game’s only goal, and the defense made it hold up for the win. Junior Blythe Novick, an All-State goalie, made 21 saves, and has allowed just two goals in 188 minutes in her last four games against Darien.

“It’s amazing,” Bulan said of Novick. “She’s been playing all the good teams since she was a freshman and she always comes up big in these games.”

Harden’s return to the defense was a boost for Novick.

“She’s a big buddy of mine and I feel super comfortable when she’s on the ice,” Novick said. “Everyone looks up to her, and when she’s out there, she guides where people have to go, so that helps. Our defense did a really good job and when the pressure got tougher, our team just matched it.”

Against Greenwich, New Canaan had the better of the play but led just 2-1 early in the third period after Cardinals’ defender Sydney Orszulak scored on a power play.

Kaleigh Harden, a sophomore forward, scored just 40 seconds later to make it 3-1, and added a late empty-netter to nail it down.

One of the keys to the Rams’ resurgence has been the use of a third line, which includes a combination of sophomores Elodie Koo, Tess Hobbs and Marina Mallozzi, and junior Arianna Bell.

That line did not play against Greenwich in the Winter Classic and its use in the second meeting with the Cards was a difference-maker.

“The third line played consistently for the first time against Fairfield (a 3-0 win), and now we’re going three deep and they’re doing great,” Bulan said. “They did a great job against Darien and Greenwich and they’re consistent. I have a lot of faith in them.”

New Canaan faces a few more challenges coming up. The Rams will take on upstate rival East Catholic (2-3-1) on Saturday in Newington, and host unbeaten West Haven/SHA (8-0) on Monday at the Darien Ice House.

Games against the Amity co-op, Greenwich Academy, LaSalle Academy (RI), Simsbury and Hall/Conard also remain, as well as a second clash with rival Darien on Feb. 1.

With the second half of the season underway, Bulan is happy with where the team is heading.

“The switch went on,” Bulan said. I think they woke up and started believing in themselves and understanding what we’re capable of.”

NOWAK NEARS 100

Taylor Nowak has been one of the keys to the West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy co-op’s success the last few seasons, and the senior forward is nearing a career milestone as she has 99 goals heading into Thursday’s action.

West Haven/SHA will host Branford/North Branford/East Haven at 5:15 p.m., Thursday, at Bennett Rink.

Nowak, a two-time All-State and All-SCC first team player, was the SCC Player of the Year as a junior last winter, and academically ranks in the top 10 in her class.

She has helped lead the Sharks to a perfect 8-0 mark with the schedule nearly halfway complete. They were 18-4 last winter.

Nowak became the team’s first 100-point player when she scored a goal in the second period of a 6-2 win over Hamden last season. She now has 131 points overall with the 99 goals and an additional 32 assists.

“We knew she was special as a freshman,” coach Erin Blake said after Nowak earned her 100th point last winter. “We saw her work ethic. The way she plays is the way she practices. She is one of the most unselfish players. Her line has really worked well this season. It is a tribute to how hard the line works in practice.”

ICE TIME

A pair of SCC girls ice hockey teams will be taking part in the Connecticut Ice competition, a weekend event which will take place Jan. 24 through Jan. 26 at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena.

Guilford will square off with the West Haven/SHA co-op at 4:15 p.m., Friday, Jan. 24, to kick off the weekend. Guilford is currently 2-2, while the Sharks are unbeaten at 8-0.

That game will be followed by a pair of boys games, as Westminster faces Loomis Chaffee at 6:15 p.m., and Notre Dame-West Haven faces Notre Dame-Fairfield at 8:45 p.m.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 2 through 18.

The weekend will also feature a four-team elimination college tournament on Saturday and Sunday involving UConn, Quinnipiac, Yale and Sacred Heart.

BIG WEEK AHEAD

Get ready for a shake-up at the top of the state standings.

The coming week is chock full of intriguing inter-conference match-ups, as seven of the top eight teams in the standings will play in at least one head-to-head match-up.

Saturday is the big day, with four big contests.

Greenwich (6-2) will travel to Bennett Rink in West Haven to take on West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy co-op (8-0) in an FCIAC-SCC contest at 1 p.m.; Darien (5-1) faces the Suffield co-op (7-0-1) at Enfield Twin Rinks at 5:20 p.m.; New Canaan (8-2-1) faces the East Catholic co-op (2-3-1) at Newington Ice Arena at 6:35 p.m.; and an SCC vs. CCC battle between Amity co-op (7-2-1) and first-place Simsbury (6-0-0) caps the day at 7:30 p.m. at the International Skating Center in Simsbury.

An SCC-FCIAC match-up awaits on Monday when New Canaan hosts the West Haven/SHA co-op at 6 p.m. at the Darien Ice House.

In addition to those inter-conference games, the week will also include the second of two meetings between Darien and Greenwich, who clash at Hamill Rink in Greenwich at 8 p.m., Thursday. Darien won the first meeting 2-0 on opening night.

A CCC meeting of two currently unbeaten teams will also take place Monday when Simsbury visits Enfield Twin Rinks to square off with the Suffield co-op. The two teams will meet again on Jan. 25 in Simsbury.

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports