MIDDLETOWN – Defense wins championships. Cliché, you say?
Don’t tell Cheshire hockey head coach Anthony Giusto the age-old mantra isn’t true.
The Rams have proven defense can and does win on the ice, posing a 6-3-1 record midway through the hockey season. Despite its offensive deficiencies, Cheshire is a team to watch the rest of the way in a wide-open, yet competitive Division II.
Cheshire’s latest outing, a 1-1 tie with Division I New Fairfield-Immaculate on Wednesday night, was maybe its best effort to date — at least on defense. After surrendering a first-period goal, the Rams blanked the Mustangs for over 45 minutes to earn a valuable three playoff points.
Cheshire is now ranked 9th in Division II playoff points.
“We knew from the beginning of the season that our defense and goaltending would be our strong points,” said Giusto, who is in his eighth season at Cheshire. “And, so far, we’ve matched up pretty well with the better teams out there.
“We have great senior leadership, both on and off the ice,” Giusto added. “I just think we are ahead of where we have been the past couple of years. Our goal every year is to make it to Yale and we have a very realistic shot to get there.”
If Cheshire is to get to the state final four at Yale’s Ingalls Rink, it will ride on that senior leadership, which can be found on defense. Behind those seniors is a junior who has been even more impressive: goalie Nick Maringola.
Maringola made 30 saves to earn a tie against NFI. He has now stopped 186 of 202 pucks he’s faced.
Collectively on the season, Maringola and the Rams have allowed just 16 goals in 10 games, losing 2-1 in overtime to West Haven and 2-0 to Division II power Watertown-Pomperaug.
Only Branford, No. 3 in Division II playoff points, has scored more than three goals against Cheshire, beating the Rams 5-1 on Jan. 3.
“Tonight (against NFI) showed we can hang with anybody; it gives us a lot of momentum,” Maringola said. “That’s a very good D-I team, and to tie them 1-1 is big for us.”
As impressive as they have been on defense, the Rams know they will need to put the puck in the net more often if they hope to advance deep in the state playoffs. The Rams were eliminated in the first round a year ago and have yet to score more than four goals in a single game this season.
Giusto expects more second-half production from senior forwards Jason McKinley, who has two assists but has yet to score, and Evan Veivia (2 goals, 3 assists). The seniors play together on a line that has yet to click.
Filling some of the offensive void has been a group of sophomores. In fact, in Cheshire’sthe last two outings, sophomores have scored all five Cheshire goals.
Aidan Gaudet scored the equalizer Wednesday against NFI and was one of four sophomores to score in a 4-1 win over North Branford last week.
“That (sophomore) group is just a really good group,” Giusto said. “For Aidan to get a couple of goals the last two games is very rewarding.
“The sophomores have been stepping up for us, but we need a little more offensive firepower.”
Niklas Vasiljevs, who also scored against North Branford, is yet another sophomore Giusto knew he could count upon for offense. Vasiljevs, whose father Herberts represented the Latvian national team at three Olympic Games and played 51 NHL games for the Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver Canucks, has been counted on to score since his freshman season at Cheshire.
“My freshman year, I hadn’t even been to a practice or tryouts, but (Giusto) does meetings with each player and he tells me I’m going to have 100 points in my Cheshire career,” Vasiljevs recounted. “I was like, ‘Alright, put a target on my back.’”
While 100 points may be a reach, Vasiljevs had nine points as freshman and five so far this season, and his skills and speed on the ice are clearly noticeable.
“We’re working on (100), don’t worry,” jokes Vasiljevs.
“He has been a little snake bit around the net,” Giusto said. “Hopefully, he saving all his goals for the second half of the season.”
But as Guisto knows, what will carry Cheshire is its defense. And that’s where the senior leadership can be found.
Senior defensemen Ben O’Connor, James Ilnicki and Kyle Sheehan will dictate the success or failure of Cheshire the rest of the regular season and into the postseason. It’s why O’Connor wears the “C” and Ilnicki the “A” as Cheshire’s captain and assistant captain.
“Coming into my senior season, the goal was to get to Yale and that championship. I think we can get there,” said O’Connor, who has played varsity since his sophomore season. “We do have great defense this year, and I think we are getting our offense back. I hope we can continue that.”
“Our defense is very solid this year, and we look to create offense out of our defensive zone,” said Ilnicki. “We know there aren’t going to be a lot of blowouts or games that get out of hand. We are always ready for a close game.”
Games like Wednesday’s with NFI will only help the Rams come the postseason.
“I told the kids that if we play this way in the second half of the season, we are going to win a lot more games than we are going to lose,” Giusto said. “This was a very good momentum game for us to carry us into the second half of the season.”
Looking to that second half, Cheshire still has a host of tough SCC/SWC games to play and defending Division II champion Farmington Valley looms as a non-conference challenge on Feb. 18.
“We want to be challenged,” Giusto said. “We may not win all those games, but we want to see where we are at. When it comes time to play our Division II teams, we want to have been tested."