In loss to New Canaan, Lancers find positives
Most coaches would have cringed at the thought of stepping behind the bench for the Notre Dame of Fairfield hockey team, which was thrown into a state of chaos following the abrupt mid-season retirement of the legendary Marty Roos last week.
But not Steve Hetherman, perhaps the only person capable of throwing himself into a such a volatile situation.
Hetherman was the coach of the New York University club hockey team when the World Trade Center was attacked, an unthinkable event that turned the world upside down and their rink into a holding area for the victims.
“They used Chelsea Piers as a temporary morgue,” said Hetherman, who took over for Roos after half a season as a varsity assistant with Notre Dame. “Of course, all the boys got counseling on the team, but it took 4-8 weeks before the boys could navigate again.”
On a much more insignificant scale, Hetherman is looking to do the same thing with the young Lancers, hoping to steer Notre Dame back to the shores of respectability.
Despite running into a hot goaltender in the form of junior Chris Koennecke during a 4-0 setback against New Canaan Thursday night at the Milford Ice Pavilion, Notre Dame’s new head coach saw enough positives to make him think better days lie ahead.
In their second game since the departure of Roos, the Lancers (3-8) skated with a hop in their step and competed with a greater sense of urgency, putting 30 shots on net after managing an average of 22 over the first 10 games.
If not for the play of Koennecke, who made 35 saves to post his first shutout of the season, and number of bad breaks in the first period, Notre Dame might have had something to celebrate.
Instead, the Lancers will have to settle for a step in the right direction.
“I though the effort was good. There was good intensity level and hard work,” said Heatherman, who inherits a young team still seeking its first win against a Division I opponent this season. "I think the kids are responding and learning new things every day. As long as there's a willingness to learn, we'll be okay."
However, the absence of Roos, an icon on the Connecticut high school hockey scene who stepped down after 22 years at Notre Dame following 19 as head coach at Fairfield Prep, is a void not easily ignored.
“It’s tough to replace a legend. I think all of us were shocked,” Heatherman said. “But we just have to move on. What else can we do? If we have a pity party, no one’s going to come.”
Even New Canaan head coach Bo Hickey felt a sense of strangeness with Roos absent from his own rink.
“I’ve known Marty for over 40 years. He’s one of the class acts in ice hockey,” said Hickey, in his 18th season as head coach of the Rams. “Those kids came out and played really hard.”
For the Rams (7-3-1), the strong overall effort was another indication that their early-season struggles are behind them. New Canaan, which received two goals from sophomore Henry Stanton and a goal and one assist each from seniors Jake Granito and Dylan Hart, is 5-0-1 over its last six games.
“It’s unbelievable the improvement we’ve made since the first couple of weeks,” Koennecke said. “We’re really starting to gel as a team. We have a lot of young kids, so it took a while for us to learn how to play together. But I think it’s coming together really well and our last stretch of games I think it’s really showed.”
Koennecke, in his first season as the team’s No. 1 starting goaltender, has had a lot to do with the resurgence.
“He’s been solid for us,” Hickey said. “He understands the angles. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he doesn’t back away from anybody. He had two breakaways against him and stuffed both of them, so you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Koennecke got off the a strong start with two strong saves midway through the first period.
Koennecke made a kick save on quick shot by Matt Khorasani then stoned Christian LaCroix from point-blank range after a steal in the defensive zone put the Notre Dame sophomore in a 1-on-1 situation.
After that, it seemed as if nothing was going to get past him. That confidence carried over to the rest of the Rams.
“When you make big saves like that in the first period it’s huge,” Koennecke said. “If you can keep your team in it, I’m always confident the rest of the guys are going to play well the rest of the game. If I can go out there and give us a chance to win, I’m happy.”
Both teams came out strong, but the Rams did what Notre Dame could not, scoring twice on the power play to take a 2-0 lead in the second period. The Lancers went 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
Granito put New Canaan up 1-0 on the power play with 29 seconds left in the first period, tipping on a shot by Hart off a strong pass off the boards by senior Tyler Manchuck.
Notre Dame worked hard to produce scoring chances, and might have had two or three goals had a couple of tipped shots graze the posts without going in.
“We had three deflections that just wouldn’t cross the goal line for us,” Heatherman said. “We thought they were in. Even Bo (Hickey) thought we had one or two.”
New Canaan went up 2-0 with another late power-play goal with 30 seconds left in the second. Stanton crossed the blue line and dropped the puck to Brock Anderson, a late addition to the roster following an injury to another New Canaan player during warm-ups. Notre Dame goalie Justin Krochko (31 saves) stopped the shot by Anderson, but Stanton was there to bury the rebound.
New Canaan dominated the rest of the game with Stanton scoring off his own steal at 1:24 of the third to make it 3-0. Hart put New Canaan up 4-0, scoring off assists from Granito and Spencer Manchuck after being released from the penalty box seconds earlier.
An afterthought earlier this season, New Canaan must now be considered a team to be reckoned with in the state playoffs.
“Our game has improved in every game we’ve played,” Koennecke said. “If we keep playing hard and doing the little things right, I think we can make a real run in the states this year.”