Lessons learned, No. 4 Sheehan amped up to avenge Division II losses
WALLINGFORD — The last CIAC hockey teams to hit the ice for a state quarterfinal playoff game did so in 2019.
The Sheehan Titans, then a Division III program, were one of the few teams to even play a first-round game before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt in March 2020.
Now, in a more normal landscape – and now in Division II – the No. 4 seeded Titans (17-5) have spent the past three days preparing for a rematch with the No. 5 generals of Farmington Valley (13-8) on Friday night in a quarterfinal game at Newington Ice Arena at 7 p.m.
“We’ve done pretty well the last few games,” Sheehan head coach Dave Festa said this week. “We will do our best for Friday’s game.”
Sheehan opened his Division II title run on Monday night with a 4-2 win over No. 13 East Catholic, a team that beat Farmington Valley in the regular season.
The Titans have used the past few days to decompress from the stress of a state playoff game, Festa said, and to scout the Generals, a team they already know from their Feb. 9 meeting, a game won by Farmington. Valley 3-0 in Choate.
While the Titans may not have played their best in that opener, the 3-0 shutout wasn’t quite indicative of how the game was progressing. The Generals certainly got the win by forcing Sheehan into awkward situations and never allowing them to hold the puck too long. But a ricochet score, a rebound goal in a 4v4 game and an empty net made the difference.
When the Titans had the opportunity to come back, they failed.
“We weren’t getting quality shots from the other side, which gave their goaltender a lot of confidence,” Festa said. “And it’s difficult to play against a goalkeeper with a lot of confidence. You squeeze the sticks a little harder to try and make a play and I think it snowballed.
At the time, the loss was the second in a row for the Titans, who had dropped their previous game with North Haven, 2-1, in overtime. Sheehan bounced back to win five of his last six regular season games before a CSC semi-final loss to North Haven, who then beat Lyman Hall in the conference final and is now the No. 1 seed in the tournament. State D-II.
Like Farmington Valley, North Haven posed similar problems for the Titans. They never prepared and kept the puck too long. But after their performance in the first round on Monday, they feel like they have turned a page.
“Especially in that last game against East Catholic, where they were closing the gaps pretty well as well,” Festa noted. “But one of the keys was that we got rid of the puck really quickly and then moved into space.”
The Titans want to be more effective on their power play this time around against the Generals. They went 0-2 in Game 1 and largely played on the perimeter instead of working in “dirty areas”.
Sheehan’s power play and shorthandedness – Festa credits Matthew Carboni and Aidan Koenig with improving the PK game – will prove crucial in a game where, as Festa put it, “every mistake can be amplified”.
Good special teams often translate into a good performance in net, and the confidence of Sheehan’s second-year goaltender Michael Fritz is on the rise. Fritz was in net in the first round with the generals and is laser focused on Friday’s task.
“It starts tonight and tomorrow,” Fritz said after Monday’s win over East Catholic. “All this week in training, it’s been working hard every time. In every training you push yourself, you also push your teammates and you get that mental preparation.
Fritz wasn’t even in high school when the Titans last played a state playoff game, but he won the start against junior Justin Lyon and senior Luca Mange. Festa credits constant competition from Lyon and Mange for honing Fritz.
“I think he’s playing with a bit more focus and a bit of a lead,” Festa said. “He realizes that there are two very strong goalkeepers right behind him who could take his place, but I think that pushes him to fight harder and concentrate.
Festa and the coaching staff also worked on the mental side of the game with Fritz. But on the ice, there is only Fritz and his teammates. This is where the benefits of an eight-man senior class come in, especially with four subclasses contributing regularly.
“Really just kind of really relying on our seniors, like Jimmy Stratton and Brenden Hilinski and those guys, and Anthony DeFilio, to kind of help guide the younger guys into these bigger games and realize it’s time to take that next step and that next level,” Festa said.
While their presence in the locker room cannot be quantified, their contributions on the ice can. The three seniors named above are among the team’s leading scorers.
In 22 games, Stratton ranks sixth on the team with 12 points on eight goals and four assists. Hilinski is third in goals (15) and fourth in points (31). Both of these guys are defenders.
DeFilio, with 16 goals and 25 assists for 41 points, trails only rookie Max Festa in all three categories. Max Festa’s 55 points on 29 goals and 26 assists is a program record for a freshman.
Senior Andry Guy (32 points) and second Landon Cantele (12) round out Sheehan’s top six as the Titans continue to mix and match line combinations.
Determining the best fit will be crucial as Coach Festa calls the Titans’ Division II half “arguably the toughest.” A potential rematch with North Haven awaits next Tuesday’s semi-finals if either team survives Friday night.
No. 2 Lyman Hall and No. 3 Wethersfield loom in the other half of the table. Festa believes the stiff competition has helped his group focus on each individual competition, although the ultimate goal of hoisting a championship banner seems within reach.
“We knew going in that it was up in the air,” Festa said. “It was anyone’s tournament this year. So we want to make sure we position ourselves to be in the conversation and to be in the hunt.