Little Caesars faced a difficult task in their semifinal matchup, taking on the Pittsburgh Pens Elite team in their home rink, armed with an army of yellow towel waving fans.
Frank Nazar and Michael Mesic each finished with two points to help Little Caesars secure a berth in the Championship game tomorrow with a 3-1 win.
Both teams’ respective coaches noted how valuable the first goal of the game would be, either silencing the crowd or allowing Pittsburgh to rally around their responders, as they’ve done the past two games with quick starts and early goals to capture the flow of the game just minutes into the contest.
“It was very important,” Little Caesars assistant coach Ryan Pardoski said. “They’re a very quality team and you want to get in there especially in their own building and get the momentum early and our guys did a great job of doing that.”
Little Caesars came out flying to start the game. Cameron VanSickle was robbed by Pens goaltender Matthew MacArthur just two minutes into the game on a cross-crease pass. Little Caesars held a 14-5 shot advantage through the first period but the score held unaltered.
That was until 25 seconds into the second period when Mesic one-timed home a pass from Nazar across the slot. Tucker Shedd also picked up an assist on the player that netted Little Caesars that coveted first goal.
VanSickle got his revenge a few minutes later, when 3:48 into the middle frame he slammed home a rebound to put Little Caesars up 2-0. Mesic and Nazar were credited with assists on the play.
Adam Mahler helped push Pittsburgh back within striking distance, scoring a goal 1:32 seconds after VanSickle’s tally. With a 3-on-2 rush, Mahler was the trailer and received a pass from Alex Ondos before shooting it over Little Caesars goaltender Trent Boryszcuk’s blocker. Logan Cooley also got an assist on the play.
After the goal to make it 2-1, Pittsburgh really picked up their play. What was once a 20-8 shot differential in favor of Little Caesars after their 2nd goal started to draw more even. However, Little Caesars was able head into the final period still up a goal.
Pardoski and Little Caesars head coach Brian Felsner tried to instruct their team to maintain the lead but don’t become too conservative.
“Play the right way. Make simple plays,” Pardoski said. “We were playing a good quality hockey team in the Pens and they can change momentum instantly so you have to be prepared for that. Just make the simple plays and our guys did that effectively.”
The Pens continued to try and find the equalizing goal. Their best chance came when they received a power play with 9:27 left in the game. Boryszcuk stood up tall and made a big kick save on Cooley, as well as staying composed on a few scrambles in front of him.
Boryszcuk came up large again once the Pens Elite’s net was vacated, finishing with 27 saves while MacArthur had 31.
The win was sealed when Justin Varner launched the puck into the empty net with only five seconds remaining in the game, sending Little Caesars onto the final.
The No. 1 overall seed survived any upsets so far, producing a 31-6 goal differential. Their next game is their biggest one, ultimately deciding whether this tournament has been a success for the Detroit-based group.
“Hard work,” Pardoski said about what will be needed to win the 10amET championship tomorrow. “It’s going to be a battle. Guys that are well prepared and taking care of their bodies tonight and are mentally prepared for tomorrow. It’s going to take a lot, it’s going to be a dog fight.”
Florida Alliance goaltender Jacob Fowler loves the big moment, the grand stage. Thanks to his 36-save shutout on Sunday and a stout defensive effort from his teammates in front of him, he’ll experience the theatre of a Final game for a National Championship.
Anthony Kahl and Jake Richard each scored for Florida to help secure that berth in the Final with a 2-0 victory over Compuware, a team that entered the contest 4-0-0-0.
It was a complete effort from a Florida team that stumbled earlier in pool play, losing to Honeybaked, 2-1 in a nail-biting contest but had an encouraging 3-2 win over Shattuck-St. Mary’s yesterday.
“They’re playing with confidence right now and they just keep getting better and better as we go,” Florida head coach Ryan Brindley said. “Coming into the tournament I think they were a little nervous and playing a little tight. These situations are great for a kid’s development when you’re playing with a little pressure. We’re stepping up and handling it, our goalie played awesome today, phenomenal. Overall, a good defensive structured game, get a couple goals, they were playing hard, playing for each other and playing like a family. Having some fun along the way, so that’s what it’s all about.”
Florida’s willingness to block shots was on display throughout the game, showing the magnitude of the contest for the No. 2 overall seed. Though Compuware did control the play from the early going, registering the first five shots on goal.
Compuware didn’t score the first goal though, as Kahl took a puck in the neutral zone, danced around a defender at the blue line and took a shot that went over the shoulder of Compuware goaltender Michael Colarossi, sending his water bottle spiraling into the corner. The goal was scored 7:01 into the game.
The second period presented Compuware with a handful of chances that could’ve broken the game open. Fowler made a few clutch saves, including stopping a Gavin Hayes breakaway to keep his team’s lead intact.
Shots were 21-15 Compuware after the first 40 minutes, with Florida holding the lead, in large part to Fowler and the group’s collective defensive effort.
“[Jacob’s] awesome,” Brindley said. “He’s been a great goalie for us for years. He loves that kind of moment, he loves that pressure, he thrives on it. It’s something you can’t teach. He’s a leader on the team and he showed it. I’m happy for him but I’m not surprised.”
Florida doubled their lead just 13 seconds into the third period when Jake Richard picked up a puck from Blake Androni and sprung loose and shot it past Colarossi, who finished with 16 saves.
The third period saw a continued push from Compuware to try and score. However, with each Fowler save, Compuware’s frustration visibly increased. It was evident that Fowler was completely locked in when two of Compuware’s power plays, the first, 1:24 into the third period, and second, with 3:52 left in the game, produced only more saves for the Melbourne, Fla., native who stopped all 36 shots he faced.
The Alliance showed no hesitation in giving up their bodies to smother scoring opportunities. In the waning minutes of the game, Kahl blocked a point shot, scooped up the puck and iced it. He lurched back to the face-off circle, leaning over in some discomfort. On the ensuing play, he blocked a shot again.
Now Fowler and his Florida combatants will be tasked with taking down a Little Caesars team that has seemingly scored at will this tournament.
Can the biggest stage provide similar heroics for the Alliance, led by their goaltender?
“Just play the same way,” Brindley said, discussing the key to a victory tomorrow. “Obviously there’s a lot on the line but treat it like another game. The same mindset of playing for the guys on your team. Keep doing the little things. The bigger the moment sometimes you keep it simpler and do all the little things with the way you play. If they play the way they did the last couple games, it’ll be fun to watch.
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” Brindley said.