Newtown High School’s hockey team enters into the postseason hungry for success after falling short of championships last winter. The Nighthawks had a tremendous regular campaign (going 13-4-3 overall) and are — on paper — among the teams to beat in the playoffs. But make no mistake about it, the Nighthawks know it won’t be an easy task to capture a conference and/or state championship. The Hawks know they’ll have to work hard to prove they are the team to beat on the ice.
The Nighthawks are the top seed in the four-team Southern Connecticut/ South-West Conference Division III tournament, which will get under way with semifinal-round action at Milford Ice Pavilion on Wednesday, March 5 against No. 4 Sheehan of Wallingford. The opening faceoff is scheduled for 6 pm.
With a win, the Hawks skate against the victor of No. 2 New Fairfield-Immaculate of Danbury-No. 3 Masuk of Monroe in the championship game, scheduled for 6 pm at West Haven’s Bennett Rink on Friday, March 7.
Being the top seed doesn’t automatically make a team a heavy favorite. Just look at the results of regular-season action. Newtown beat Sheehan in a close one, 4-2, skated to a scoreless tie with the New Fairfield-Immaculate team, and narrowly edged Masuk 3-2 back on opening night in mid December.
“It’s going to be a challenge — that’s for sure,” Newtown Coach Paul Esposito. “We’re playing teams that are all equal. It can go any way.”
That goes for both the conference and state tournaments.
Early next week the puck will drop on the Division III state playoffs and Newtown is locked in as the No. 2 seed behind Masuk. The Panthers, despite losing to the Hawks, earned the top spot in that bracket thanks to the points system and defeating some D-II squads during the regular campaign.
As the state seedings were being finalized this week, Sheehan was ranked third, EO Smith-Tolland-Windham, which tied the Hawks, was fourth, and New Fairfield-Immaculate was fifth. Teams jockeying for position toward the bottom of the list of qualifiers are quite competitive. Wethersfield (which carried a record of 5-12, and 3-3 versus D-III opponents heading into its final three games) and Westhill of Stamford (7-13 overall but 6-0 against D-III foes) both beat Newtown. The Hawks beat Joel Barlow of Redding (also at the bottom of the state playoff pack at 4-15 with one game to go) twice this season but neither game — 3-2 and 5-3 finals — was a blowout.
A couple of things going in Newtown’s favor: Momentum and motivation.
The team capped off the regular slate with back-to-back wins — a 5-3 victory over Barlow, in a game that had been rescheduled twice because of snow, on February 28, and a 2-1 victory over Tri-Town in another makeup game, in Enfield, two days later.
In the win over Barlow, Cooper McLean and Jon Lovorn both scored twice, and Domenic Cartelli added a net-finder. Connor Hanley had a pair of assists.
Against Tri-Town, Newtown was stymied all night until breaking through for a pair of third-period goals by Hanley and Zach Waller. “We found a way to win,” Esposito said. Backup goaltender Nick Chalaux kicked aside 16 saves for the win.
Now the question is if the Hawks can find a way to win when it matters most.
A year ago, Newtown missed the conference playoffs under the old SWC-only format. The Hawks, then a Division II state team, made the state playoff bracket and, as the No. 17 seed among 18 qualifiers, and upset No. 1 Amity of Woodbridge en route to advancing to the quarterfinal round. In a rematch against a No. 9 North Branford team that the Hawks had beaten in the regular campaign, Newtown fell short and the season came to a disappointing end.
Newtown has nine returning seniors and the addition of senior Lovorn, who had played club hockey and joined the Hawks for his final high school year. Lovorn leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 11 assists.
The other seniors — Hayden Savoia, Dan Harrison, Jack Martin, Waller, Matt Sabia, Brian Gregory, Patrick McLoughlin, Hanley, and McLean — all have plenty of experience and some hunger to win.
“Hopefully, these guys can bear down and take us to that next level,” Esposito said. “They want to finish this year.”
Of course, whether or not the season ends on a winning note will depend on more than just the effort of the Hawks.
“Hopefully we’ll get some bounces this year,” the coach said optimistically.