For the first time in its history, the Mid-Fairfield Jr. Rangers will send a 14U team to the Tier I Toyota USA Hockey National Championships.
The Rangers, based in Stamford, Connecticut, won the New England District Tournament on March 2 to punch their ticket to the big show.
“The majority of these kids have been together for a bunch of years now, so they’re certainly excited about having the opportunity to compete,” Mid-Fairfield coach Gary Zegras said.
Mid-Fairfield (40-15-8) has won districts in the past in squirts and pee wees, but there weren’t national tournaments at those levels. The Rangers moved to bantams this year and didn’t waste any time achieving its goal of playing for a national title.
The Rangers would have had a great shot at qualifying for nationals as an at-large team had they placed second at districts.
“I told the kids we’re only going if we win,” Zegras said. “We made sure we kept the pressure on them.”
The district, which features six states in the New England region, had its tournament spread out over a couple weeks because it became difficult for teams to travel to one area on the same weekend.
Mid-Fairfield earned a bye into the semifinals of the six-team field on the heels of its strong regular season. The Rangers took on the New Hampshire Edge in Connecticut on Feb. 20, and won 13-1. In the championship game, the Rangers faced a familiar foe in the in-state rival Connecticut Wolf Pack on March 2.
“Both teams knew going into the year that they were the two top teams and we would end up having that championship game, and that’s the way it turned out,” Zegras said. “We were fortunate enough to get them this time around.”
Rangers forward Briggs Gammill broke a 1-1 tie in the third period with a pair of goals. Aaron Aboodi added an empty-netter to give Mid-Fairfield a 4-1 victory and an automatic bid to the national tournament. The Wolf Pack still have a shot at an at-large bid when the rest of the nationals field is determined.
Mid-Fairfield has had a great season and relies on its defense to win games. The Rangers have allowed 1.84 goals against per game and that’s in large part due to the stellar play of goalie Spencer Knight.
“It’s safe to say he’s probably the best goaltender at our age group in the country and North America,” Zegras said.
The 6-foot-3 netminder looks intimidating between the pipes, and has already committed to play at Boston College starting in the 2019-20 season.
“It’s not like we’re hiding him, so everybody knows,” Zegras said. “The identity of our team is that we’re very strong in goal and our defensive core is very good and are all high-end players.”
Dom Fensore, Cooper Moore, Ryan Pineault and Shayan Farjam make up an elite group of defensemen in front of Knight.
“Up front we try to be a little opportunistic and score, whether it’s power play or find some opportunities on some breaks and put some pucks in the net,” Zegras said. “Usually we know if we can get a lead on a team, the defense is strong enough and our goaltender is good that we can make it tough on teams to come back on us.”
Gammill and Aboodi, the two who scored big goals in the district title game, team up with the coach’s son, Trevor Zegras, to make a tremendous trio of forwards. They’ve accounted for about half of the team’s 221 goals this season.
The Rangers are well rounded and coach Zegras knows that at this time of a year, a team can ride a hot goalie a long way.
“We know that if we’re going to win this thing it’s because [Knight] is playing his game and we’re keeping pucks out of the net,” Zegras said. “We’ll be relying heavily on him, no doubt about it.”
Zegras is hoping his guys can take the momentum from winning the district title into nationals even though it will be four weeks between games for Mid-Fairfield.
“We’ve had a really good season and we were playing really well the whole season and then in January we got off track a little bit and we had a little tough stretch there,” Zegras said. “Prior to regionals, we had a couple games and we sort of found our game again and we were able to win that game. Now I think the kids have their confidence back.”
Zegras said Shattuck-St. Mary’s School is the undisputed favorite to win the national title, but a handful of four or five teams have a shot, including his own squad. Michigan’s HoneyBaked is the defending champs and No. 2-ranked Chicago Mission is coming off a second-place finish.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of really good teams, but we’ve played most of them or seen most of them at some point,” Zegras said. “The kids feel pretty good about their chances if they can play well for one more weekend.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.