Rick Saintey was confident if he could make a few adjustments, he could help his guys reverse a trend and pull off a big victory.
The Minnesota Moose Tier II 18U youth team lost three times by a 16-6 margin during the regular season to the Green Giants. The two squared off in a one-game playoff to decide the USA Hockey Minnesota District Tier II 18U champion, and also which team would get an automatic berth in the 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U National Championship.
Saintey was hoping the fourth meeting would be the charm.
“I thought, you know what, we’re going to change the systems up because these kids are 100 percent bought in,” Saintey said. “We changed things up and tried a few different things and had a little bit better outcome than we did in the previous games against them.”
The Moose upset the Green Giants 6-2 on Nov. 3 at the Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, to punch their ticket to nationals.
The Moose came into the game with an 11-11 record, so the win just barely tipped the scales on a .500 record. It was a remarkable victory against the 19-5 Green Giants.
“We had a chance to redeem ourselves a little bit and the boys came to play and put it all together in one game, so off to nationals we go,” said Saintey, who during the winter season is an assistant coach on the Rosemount (Minnesota) High School boys’ varsity hockey team. “They’re pretty pumped about the whole thing.”
Heading into the game against the Green Giants, Saintey changed up his forecheck and defensive zone coverage. In a physical, high intensity game, the Moose took the upper hand early and never gave the Green Giants a shot.
Saintey believes his guys — most of whom also play Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) hockey at South Suburban Conference schools around the Twin Cities — really took to heart what their coach was preaching.
“It’s unbelievable when you get a group of kids like this to buy in 100 percent and I totally believe this group has bought in 100 percent,” Saintey said. “They’re just great kids and come to play every single day and they buy in, and I think that’s what makes this group a little different than groups that I’ve had in the past.”
Last season, the Moose got to nationals at Tier II 18U and went 2-2 but didn’t make it out of pool play. Six players returned this year that got to experience nationals in 2018: Carter Henry, Michael Beneke, Zachary Lanz, Tony Brings, Keegan Johnson and Weston Gervais.
“It’s kind of fun because they were able to share with the boys that had not been there before, saying, ‘Hey, it’s a great time. It’s a great tournament. It’s great competition,’” Saintey said.
Henry, Johnson and Beneke will be wearing the “C” on their sweaters at nationals, April 4-8 in San Jose, California. Saintey said Johnson is a team captain of his high school team at Eagan and is an excellent leader. Henry is a solid defenseman who helped St. Thomas Academy advance to the semifinals of the MSHSL state tournament in early March.
“I am looking to them for the leadership on the ice, leadership in the locker room,” Saintey said. “The nerves will probably be there a little bit for the guys. I think the guys who have been through it already once, I think will help out tremendously. We lean on them for a little more leadership this coming April.”
Saintey has a solid mix of defensive and offensive units that can adapt to any style of play from their opponents. Late in the fall season, the Moose’s defense picked up its game.
“Our D-core and our goaltending is fantastic,” Saintey said. “The D-core understands their job and roles.”
After over a four-month hiatus from playing together, the Moose guys regroup in early March to get ready for nationals. When they got back on the ice together, the chemistry quickly returned.
“This group of kids has the character and camaraderie and the friendships, and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day when you get these teams together,” Saintey said.
Even though the Moose will probably be going into nationals with the worst record in Tier II 18U, Saintey isn’t looking at his team as underdogs. He knows what his guys are capable of on the ice.
“We’re going to take the approach that we’re going to play every game like it’s the final game,” Saintey said. “We’ll leave everything out on the ice because that’s the only way you get to Saturday, Sunday, Monday’s play.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.