Just a few minutes had elapsed in Monday night’s game against New Canaan when St. Joseph forward Christian Keator picked up a loose puck in the offensive zone and ducked into the right corner. Almost immediately, two Rams met the senior captain with a double-body check into the boards, sending a message Keator couldn’t help but hear loud and clear.
Bo Hickey, New Canaan’s veteran head coach, didn’t devise a specific game plan to stop St. Joseph’s leading scorer. But with Keator having put up three hat tricks over his previous four games, Hickey made sure his players knew where No. 9 was at all times.
“Do you concentrate a little more when he’s on the ice? Yes,” Hickey said. “We were aware of him.”
Despite the extra attention, Keator still ended up doing his damage, leading the surging Cadets to a 6-3 victory over the perennial FCIAC powerhouse Rams in a crucial conference showdown at the Darien Ice Rink.
Keator scored the first two goals of the game to give the Cadets a 2-0 lead in the first period, one on a shot off the back of New Canaan starting goalie Chris Koennecke and another on a nifty deflection of a shot from the point.
Keator later assisted on two other goals as St. Joseph jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the second period before holding off a late rally in the third behind the solid goaltending of sophomore Wade Conlan (30 saves).
Keator didn’t collect another hat trick, but did get something even better, a victory that increased St. Joseph’s win streak to five games and improved its overall record to 6-2, making the Cadets the hottest team in the FCIAC.
“I don’t care about the hat tricks. It’s about getting wins,” said Keator, a Milford resident. “I think a win like this proves we’re one of the best teams in the state this year. And that’s big.”
Keator has been almost personally responsible for St. Joseph’s hot streak, scoring all 11 of his goals this season over the past four games. That included hat tricks against Hamden, Notre Dame of Fairfield and Cheshire.
“He’s been real productive the last few weeks,” St. Joseph head coach Marty Crouse said. “We’re starting to spread it out a little more with teams starting to key on him. But he keeps plugging away. It seems like he gets stronger and stronger every game. Whether he scores or not, he’s a factor out there. It’s nice to have that threat.”
New Canaan’s offense produced a ton of great scoring chances behind the play of ever-hustling junior captain Harry Stanton (one goal, two assists). The Rams (2-3-2) pulled to within 5-3 with two goals in less than a minute early in the third period, one on a short-handed goal by Puck Richardson (two goals) and another on a power play by Stanton.
But Conlan denied the Rams with a number of head-spinning saves, stopping one puck with his pads while lying on his back in the crease. Troy Deering sealed the victory with a power-play goal off a pass from Keator with eight minutes left.
New Canaan finished with 30 shots on goal compared to 33 for St. Joseph, so at least the chances were there.
“If it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in,” Hickey said. “Opportunities are the best thing to have. But the days of us being a young team are over. Everyone’s a veteran now, so we have to start stepping up.”
Hickey pulled Koennecke (18 saves) midway through the second period and junior Theo Christian played well in relief, making 15 saves while allowing two goals.
“I thought he played well. He made some real nice saves. And Koennecke’s been real tough all year, too,” Hickey said. “I told you before the start of the season, you couldn’t live off the difference between them.”
Both of Keator’s goals were desmonstrations of his skill and talent. On his first one, the left-handed Keator picked up a loose puck and drove behind the net. Koennecke thought he was going to go all the way around to make a pass, but just as he turned his head, Keator flipped the puck off his left shoulder and it dribbled down his back and over the goal line.
“I was trying to look him off and pretend I was going to slide it,” Keator said. “When he started to slide over, I decided to put it in off his back.”
The second goal took great hand-eye coordination. Forward Colin Powell unleashed a high wrist shot from the point and Keator, skating in from the left circle, caught it in the air with his stick, deflecting it past Koennecke for a 2-0 lead with a minute left in the second.
“I passed it to him and told him to go to the net,” Keator said. “I was just looking for the rebound and he shot it high. It was just a quick deflection.”
St. Joseph has always operated in an offense-first philosophy under Crouse, always attacking, never slowing down the pace of the game. Up 2-0, the Cadets just pushed harder, making it 3-0 on a goal by Powell on a wrist shot from the left side.
Keator had a chance to complete his hat trick after breaking into the New Canaan zone on a 2-on-1 later in the second, but decided to pass instead, setting up Ryan Corcoran for a goal that made it 4-0 with 7:10 left.
Even up 5-1, the Cadets kept pressing on offense, leaving Keator on the opposite blue line waiting for a breakout pass. St. Joseph is willing to give up a little on defense if it means creating more scoring chances. The Cadets made it work despite leaving Conlan alone in the defensive zone all night.
“It’s just how we’ve always played,” Keator said. “It’s just a different style of hockey, and it works for us. It gives me lots of chances and creates a lot of 2-on-1’s. We always have odd-man rushes. That’s how we score most of our goals.”
New Canaan almost made St. Joseph pay, scoring three of the next four goals, but Troy Deering sealed the victory at 6:39 of the third, picking up a missed shot by Keator in the corner and beating Christian from another odd angle.
Senior Bryan Canfarotta also scored for St. Joseph while sophomore Luke Amero had two assists for the Rams.
“I’m real pleased with our effort tonight,” Crouse said. “Against Hamden, we came out slow and had to come back on them. Tonight, we got a couple of quick goals and maybe put some doubt in their minds. I’m happy with the effort.”