The Chieftains’ third trip ever to the championship ends in a 3-1 defeat by the Newington Co-op.
By Paul Palmer
They played more than 1,100 minutes of hockey this season. For West Hartford’s Conard Chieftains, the 2022 season came down to 20 seconds. A blip of time in a grueling season, a blip of time that every player may never forget.
Twenty seconds – that was the time it took the Newington Nor’easters to score two goals in the second period of the Division III Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference hockey title game, and end the Conard season by a final count of 3-1 on Thursday night.
Conard’s run to the championship game at Quinnipiac University’s People’s United Center was as improbable as the speed of the loss to Newington. The team went 3-8-1 in a stretch of games between Dec. 18 and Feb. 5. They were seeded No. 9 (of 16 teams) in the tournament, but they became the lowest seed to play in the D III title game since its inception in 2006.
Conard’s previous trips to the championship game were in 1996, when they defeated East Haven 6-2 for the Division II championship, and in 1985 when they beat Westhill (Stamford) 5-4 in overtime.
To even reach Thursday’s game, they had to defeat the No. 1 seed E.O. Smith/Tolland who had beaten Conard three times this season. They did that 2-1 in overtime. Then it was another 2-1 win, this time against No. 4 BBD. But Thursday it just was not to be, as the Chieftains lost for the third time this season to Newington.
If fans and opponents didn’t suspect Conard had the moxie to make the run, these players and coaches knew all along that they did. Using it as a rallying cry, the Chieftains rebounded from that poor midwinter stretch, and went 6-1-1 to finish the regular season and set themselves up for the post-season run.
Playing before a lively crowd and surrounded by all the fanfare and big game atmosphere it deserved, both teams came out hitting in the opening period. Newington took control of the game and took control of the hits early on. It was the stellar play of senior goalie Graydon Selstad that kept Conard in the game as he calmly and coolly mad stop after stop.
With six minutes to play in the first, the Nor’easters held a 7-2 shot advantage – many of them high quality chances. Conard would get its best chance with just under 5:30 to go in the first when Aiden Emery found some open space in front of the Newington net, but a pair of defenders threw themselves at Emery and blocked the puck from reaching his stick.
Thirty seconds later it was Selstad again coming up big – this time tracking Braden Humphries as the defenseman carried the puck down the far boards, cut into the top of the faceoff circle and let go a big shot that Selstad sticked away.
At the end of the opening 15 minutes, it was scoreless, and the credit had to go to Selstad as he held firm in net facing 13 shots to just six taken by his team. “I felt it was my final high school game and I wanted to give it everything I could,” said Selstad of his play.
Before fans could get comfortable in their seats for the second period, Conard would score the game’s first goal. On just their eighth shot of the game, the Chieftains’ Brady Narus – a freshman – went high glove to beat Jeremy Wagner and send the Conard fans into a frenzy. The goal came just 57 seconds into the period. “We know we don’t score a ton of goals,” said Conard coach Jason Olson about the importance of the goal.
But those 20 seconds were just around the corner.
Still holding the one-goal lead, Harrison Sweeney took a cross checking penalty to put Newington on the power play. Again, Selstad and his defense were put to the test as the Nor’easters were relentless in their pressure. The best moment for Conard came when Gavin McGowan managed to get between the inside of the post and the puck as Newington’s Evan Oliver went for the wraparound. Oliver had beaten Selstad around the near side , and as he tried to stuff the puck in, McGowan managed to get a stick in the way to deny the chance.
But just 7 seconds after they killed off the penalty, Conard was once again whistled – this time for too many men on the ice. Newington went back on the power play and built the foundation for the 20 seconds that would determine the championship.
Still catching themselves from the back-to-back kills, Conard was a little tired, and at 9:04 of the period senior Tyler Leavitt went top shelf from the right side off a pass from Harrison Rangers and the game was tied. Twenty seconds later it was Andrew Stribling – one of Newington’s top scorers – who banged home a rebound as bodies flew past Selstad.
And just like that, in 20 seconds, Conard went from being on top to trailing 2-1.
Stribling’s goal was a momentum builder for Newington. They almost added to the lead with 2:42 to go in the period as Nick Giotsas clanged a shot from the blueline, through traffic, and off the crossbar and into the netting behind the goal. By the end of the second period, Newington had outshot Conard 32-14 and held a one-goal lead with just 15 minutes to play for a championship.
“They were exhausted after those back-to-back penalty kills,” said Olson. “Those couple of shifts after were the difference in the game.”
The final period saw Newington continue to get the better of the chances, often counter-punching Conard’s attempts to get into the offensive zone with sharp passing and solid puck carrying. Conard did have their chances, and never stopped working hard to find the tying goal.
Defenseman Nolan Trent took the hard hit along the boards in his own defensive zone to spring Emery for a chance on goal, but Wagner was up to the task. With just under 4:30 to go in the game, Newington’s shot lead had grown to 34-13 and they were starting to sense what was at hand.
Conard’s last, best chance came when Luke Shaffer’s wrist shot through a tangle of players in front ended up in Wagner’s glove with 3:37 to play.
The Chieftains pulled Selstad for the extra attacker with 1:00 to go, and after sending one shot off a post Newington’ s Brayden Humphrey was given credit for a long range shot that slid into the empty net with just :09 to play.
As Newington players celebrated at one end of the ice. The Conard players gathered at the side of their net, heads held high despite the disappointment in coming so close to being called a State Champion. “They haven’t stopped battling all year,” said Olson of his team. “They never doubted they could get to this point and have a real shot at winning it.”
After the game Selstad, who was voted the game’s third star, reflected on what it all meant to him. “I’m upset but proud of everyone on this team.”
Conard will graduate eight seniors in June – eight seniors who were part of a season that saw them win just two games only two years ago. Eight seniors who will remember a phenomenal run to the final, that came down to just 20 seconds.
Brian Fehl, one of those seniors summed it up like this: “Nobody believed we’d make it here. But from day one we said we wanted to get to Quinnipiac, and we did. This run meant everything to us.”
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