Little Caesars is one of the biggest contenders to win the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 14U National Championship, powering through their first two games of pool play and outscoring the opposition 18-1. Their morning matchup with the Mid Fairfield Jr Rangers proved to be their biggest test yet, with both teams entering the contest sporting 2-0 records.
The Jr Rangers produced a pair of third period goals, including tying the game at 3-3 with under three minutes to play. Little Caesars stormed back though, with a late goal from Frank Nazar with 1:19 remaining to claim the top seed in the USA group. Nazar finished with three points in the win.
“We kind of put ourselves in that rut,” Little Caesars' head coach Brian Felsner said. "It was great to come out of it and that shows a lot about our kids. But we got away from all the little things that we did that got us up 3-1."
Little Caesars had their legs early, helping push the pace and forcing the Jr Rangers into an early penalty. Despite some stellar saves from Gavin Moffatt, Cameron VanSickle got the Detroit-based group on the board first, 7:35 into the first period by redirecting a pass to the slot into the net.
Moffatt was big early in keeping the game close and it paid off. Charles Leddy found Connor Welsh on a counter-strike after a turnover to knot the game at 1-1 with 3:59 remaining in the first period. Jake Manfre also picked up an assist on the play.
Like much of the game, whenever Little Caesars lost some momentum they seized it back. Just 45 seconds later, VanSickle found Nazar sitting back door, who slammed it home to put Little Caesars back in front.
Little Caesars added to the lead in the second period, as Luke Lisko took a pass from Benjamin Catlin in the corner and fired it past Moffatt to make it 3-1 with 4:37 remaining in the middle frame.
Little Caesars’ ability to suffocate Mid Fairfield in the neutral zone stymied their offense for much of the game. It’s been one of the biggest aspects of their early success in the tournament, as they ultimately outshot Mid Fairfield 29-15.
However, Mid Fairfield came out determined to start the third period strong and it wasn’t long before the Jr Rangers impacted the scoreboard. Nicholas Capasso found the short side on a rush just 57 seconds into the period.
After killing off a penalty midway through the period, Mid Fairfield scored on the man advantage when they worked it around the zone to Leddy, who blistered it past Prestyn Carter with 2:49 remaining in the game.
Despite surrendering the late goal, Little Caesars was able to push back and pin the Jr Rangers in their zone before Nazar scored on a wrist shot with 1:19 remaining in the game to put Little Caesars in front for good.
Carter finished with 12 saves while Moffatt had a quality showing, turning aside 25 shots for the Blueshirts.
Little Caesars’ ability to bounce back despite some setbacks and a strong game from Mid Fairfield producing a bout of adversity should prove useful when it comes to the upcoming playoff round, where each game is only set to become more competitive.
“Moving forward every game is going to be like that so it was a good test for us, it was a good game,” Felsner said.
As the #1 seed in the USA Pool, Little Caesars will duel with the Buffalo Jr Sabres, with puck drop at 12:00 p.m. ET tomorrow, while the Mid Fairfield Jr Rangers will play Compuware, slated for 2:00 p.m. ET tomorrow.
With the games transitioning to win-or-go-home in the playoff round, teams can't afford to look past the next match on their schedule.
"It's a long week and this is a tough stretch here," Felsner said. "It's going to be tough."
Anaheim rattled off seven straight goals after Sioux Falls scored a pair to tie the game at 2-2 early in the second period, as the Jr Ducks claim the 3rd seed in the USA pool. Benjamin Ivey had a hat trick and Russell Bustamante had three helpers in the win. Merrill Steenari, Hudon Blue, Jungwook Hong, Jason Stefanek, Kyle Isenberg and Tomar Ramot also scored for the Ducks. Ivar Westerman and Jaxon Grosdidier scored for Sioux Falls, with Zach Vockler assisting on both tallies. For the Ducks, Alex Koenig made four saves and Aidan Comeau stopped two shots. The Power's Ryan Manzella had 19 saves while Kamdon Carlson stopped 12 shots.
Ryan Abraham and Gavin Hayes each had three points as Compuware locked in the #1 seed of the Olympic pool with the win over Buffalo. Brent Litchard, Seamus Casey, Zion Green and Samuel Assinewai also scored for Compuware while Max Namestnikov had two assists. Brody Seitz and Sam Renaud scored for Buffalo while Joseph Lovullo made 21 saves for the Jr Sabres. Michael Colarossi stopped 11 shots for Compuware, who will take on Mid Fairfield tomorrow in the Quarterfinals. Buffalo will be tasked with Little Caesars.
Cael Dolph and Michael Valdez each had three points as the Thunderbirds overcame a 2-1 deficit to beat South Shore and take the third seed in the Olympic group. Robert Hadrick III, Borya Valis, Reid Conn, Luke Schelter and Dylan Zukosky scored for the Thunderbirds in the win. Cameron Lund scored twice and Grayson Badger also tallied for the Kings. Caylen Kier made 17 saves for Colorado while South Shore's Luc Gagnon stopped five shots and Brendan Flanagan made seven stops.
Riding the momentum of a packed home rink and needing to win by at least two goals to advance due to a potential three-way tie with the Mission and Shattuck, the Pens Elite produced three 2nd period goals to upend SSM and move on to the playoff round. Connor Chi scored the game-winning goal, one of his two, while Lucas Ross, Logan Cooley and Colton Mauser also found the back of the net for Pittsburgh. Issac Howard had a pair of goals for Shattuck and Ty Henricks also scored for the Sabres. Matthew MacArthur got the win for Pittsburgh with 26 saves while Michael D'Orazio was credited with the loss after stopping 24 shots. The Pens will take on Honeybaked in the elimination round while Shattuck St. Mary's will deal with the Florida Alliance.
The Mission's win pushed them to six points and queued a three-team tiebreaker, but Chicago's combined minus-2 goal differential vs. Pittsburgh and Shattuck left them on the outside looking in of the Quarterfinals. Connor Picard and Carson Walters both scored for Chicago in the first period, with Anchorage's Jacob Padgett scoring late in the game as the North Stars looked to draw even. However, Lucas Winger, in net for the Mission shut that chance down and finished with 12 saves. Bryant Marks had nine saves for Anchorage while Mason Brooks stopped 11 shots.
In a game with big seeding implications for the next round, Honeybaked was able to hold on and top Florida. Aiden Dubinsky scored for the Alliance 2:23 into the second period, but Honeybaked's Jerome Pegrum evened the score only 39 seconds later. Honeybaked forward Nathan Lewis scored just a minute after that on a wrist shot to put the Michigan-based squad in front. Honeybaked goaltender Rocco Stolz held it down with nine saves and him and his team will take on Pittsburgh in the elimination round. Jacob Fowler made 19 saves for Florida, who will matchup with Shattuck.
The Blues were able to take third place in the Liberty pool with a strong effort against Valley Forge. Jack Larrigan had three assists and Alex Fendler had two goals to lead St. Louis. Tyler Catalano, Andrew Clarke, Alek Nelson and Gianluca Boccardi also scored for the Blues as Harrison Brown made 19 saves. Dylan Shane scored the Minutemen's lone goal, with Grant Kokenberger putting in a 14-save performance.