PLYMOUTH, Mich. – As the buzzer sounded and the sticks flew into the air, Zakari Brice threw his hands up and went to the dog pile with his teammates. The Little Caesars goaltender had just posted his third shutout, and second in as many days, to lead his team to a 4-0 win over the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies in the Chipotle-USA Hockey Tier I 15-Only National Championship.
“This is what we’ve been striving for all year,” said Brice. “You can’t really put it into words. It’s just an unbelievable feeling, and it’s a fun time with the boys.
“I think it just shows the strength of the team,” said Head Coach Patrik Stefan about his team’s back-to-back shutouts. “The goalie, Zak Brice, was unreal over the last three games and we played some good defense and playing for each other and that’s what the playoffs are about. You’re not going to win too many playoff games with one or two guys, and we showed that especially over the last three games.”
The two teams exchanged a number of chances through the first half of the first period before Little Caesars was able to break through against Oakland goalie Owen Bartoszkiewicz. After a rush was broken up, the puck went back to Karsten Senden at the point. He fired it toward the net, but it was deflected by a Jr. Grizzlies defenseman right to the stick of Ethan Wissink who put it home.
The lead improved to 2-0 on a nice give-and-go play between Mikita Tarasevich and John O’Brien. Tarasevich gained zone entry and slowed down to pass back to O’Brien. Tarasevich then spun around and drove to the net where O’Brien connected with him on the back door pass.
“I think the whole season we showed that we have good depth on the team, but when it comes to playoffs you have to compete, you have to work hard,” said Stefan of the skill his team showed.
Little Caesars showcased good passing once again for their third goal late in the second period. In the offensive zone, the puck found the stick of Evan Werner. Assessing his options, Werner faked a shot and passed to Luke Hughes. Hughes, the brother of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes and current USA Hockey National Team Development Program forward Jack Hughes, one-timed the puck into the back of the net. The fourth goal came off the stick of Tarasevich after a nice move to get into the zone.
“It’s the whole team. Especially today, we played a full game and it feels great,” said Brice.
Oakland threatened with a number of good scoring opportunities. Perhaps their best came on the power play with just over 11 minutes to go in the third. After a pass was deflected over the head of Brice, a Jr. Grizzlies player knocked it out of mid-air on the back door. Brice, in desperation, stuck his left pad out to make an incredible toe save. He made 13 saves in the victory.
“It feels amazing,” said Stefan. “It’s been a long road and we’ve played a lot of hockey over the last month. It has been a grind, but a credit to the boys. They showed up and played great, and played hard throughout the weekend.”