Newington-Berlin coach Dave Harackiewicz isn’t one to play mind games, but after 16 years and two previous state championship losses, he wanted to be sure his team was as prepared mentally as they are physically.
Harackiewicz utilized guest speakers like Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander, Newington baseball coach Eric Frank (2011 Class LL state champion), and a sports psychologist in recent days to talk about their experiences and what it means to play for one’s town and community. He showed his team a video of last year’s Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup and asked his players to picture themselves holding a state championship plaque over their heads. And as someone who vividly remembers falling short in the past, Harackiewicz had visions just 24 hours before his top-seeded Indians were to face off against No. 4 Northwest Catholic for the CIAC Division III Championship.
“I could only envision us winning it. It’s our time,” Harackiewicz said.
Berlin’s Brandon Ralph and goaltender Drew O’Leary did their best to make the vision a reality. Ralph had a goal and an assist and O’Leary made a flurry of stops in the third period as part of his 22 saves for the game to lead Newington-Berlin to its first state title 2-1 before a raucous crowd at Ingalls Rink. It is only the third year as a co-op for the Newington-Berlin team.
“This is the greatest moment ever,” said Ralph, who finished with 17 goals and 31 assists. “This is something I wanted in my senior year, to leave here with a state championship.
"But it's bittersweet though. I went to Northwest Catholic my freshman year so I feel a little bad for those guys."
In a matchup that pitted two outstanding first lines, a pair of top notch goaltenders and two squads that had won a combined 32 straight games, the teams played a physical first 15 minutes before Ralph broke the ice late in the period. With Zeke Angelini whistled for boarding, Berlin’s Jeff Smolicz kept the puck in and sent it over to his defensive partner Jeff Rossman, who threw it towards the net. Ralph accepted the pass on the left side, turned, and quickly put the puck through Matt Greenwood’s pads with 1:30 left.
Brendon Richard (31 goals, 23 assists), who scored six goals in the postseason, including four in a quarterfinal win over Rockville-Manchester-Stafford, made it a 2-0 advantage for Newington-Berlin with 6:24 to play in the second, capping off a crisp 3-on-2 break by beating Greenwood low to the glove side. Nick Briganti skated down the right wing and dropped it for Richard, who scored from the slot with Ralph skating hard to the net on the left wing.
“I tried to come out and be aggressive and cut down the angles on their shots, but I just wish I could have had that second one back,” said Greenwood (15 saves), who hopes to continue his career playing club hockey for the University of Vermont.
His team would try to help him out. Less than a minute later, Richard was called for cross-checking. Northwest capitalized with just under four minutes to go in the period when Patrick Melanson completed a nice passing play by beating O’Leary upstairs to cut the lead in half. Alex Hunter kept the puck in and played it over to Tanner Vaughn at the left point. Vaughn found Melanson cross ice in the right faceoff dot, and Melanson waited patiently as traffic formed in front of O’Leary before shooting it over him with 11 seconds left in the man advantage.
“My goal gave us a little momentum. It was exciting to score the goal, but we knew we still had a mountain to climb coming back,” said Melanson, a junior who finished an impressive campaign with 30 goals and 60 points.
Northwest Catholic (19-5) killed off a Newington-Berlin power play early in the third and both goaltenders put on a display for the final 15 minutes. Northwest would get one more power play chance with just over five minutes to play, but O’Leary (1.78 goals-against average) shut the door with three consecutive stops on Melanson, Conor Hardy and A.J. Massaro (17 goals, 32 assists). Harackiewicz utilized his timeout to give his team a rest and kill Northwest’s momentum.
“It comes down to bounces, and towards the end, we hit a crossbar and had a few flop off our stick with an empty net there,” Northwest coach Don Melanson said. “That’s going to happen. That’s hockey. Sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t. I’m proud of all the players here. I think they played to the best of their abilities. I couldn’t ask anything more from them.”
Northwest’s five seniors (Greenwood, Massaro, Tanner Vaughn, Hardy, and Brennan Graham) reached the semifinals each of their first three years and took it a step further in 2011-12.
“This is their fourth year in a row (playing at Yale). Every year they’ve been here,” Coach Melanson said. “That’s quite an accomplishment for any senior class.”
Newington-Berlin (22-2) graduates six seniors (Ralph, Briganti, Alex Ericson, Tim Ouellette, Matt Carlson, and Tim Lynch) who have made this more than just a traditional co-op team.
“It’s been a magical year that they are going to remember for the rest of their lives. All the hard work they put in from the beginning paid off,” Harackiewicz said. “And the biggest thing that carried us through this was our team chemistry. Everyone got along. Everyone did things together. We finished by winning 21 games in a row. The seniors left with a great legacy.”
Smolicz, who required stitches in the first period after applying a hit that caused his own helmet to cut open his forehead, concurred with Harackiewicz.
“Coach said he has never seen a co-op team bond the way we have,” said Smolicz, one of seven returners from Berlin. “The team chemistry was unbelievable. Our seniors were always positive and invited us wherever they were going.”
Smolicz shared another invitation, another vision he would like to see come true.
“Hopefully do it again next year and repeat!”