PLANO, Tex. — Just like he’s been for the entire 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 16U National Championships, Heath Mensch was again the go-to guy for the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights on Monday morning against the Atlanta Jr. Kings at Plano StarCenter.
Mensch, who led the 1A division with 12 points (six goals), scored Vegas’ lone goal of regulation, a power-play tally late in the third period, when he beat Atlanta goaltender Mason Rush far post from the right circle to tie the game at one.
He then added the Jr. Golden Knights’ clinching goal in the shootout, sealing a 2-1 victory.
“He’s definitely a skilled player, an unbelievably skilled player and we lean on him a lot,” Vegas head coach Wally Lacroix said. “He stepped up to the plate for us. Not a better team player in that locker room.”
For 34 minutes, Atlanta and Vegas played scoreless hockey to start the early morning contest. The second period was a bit of a nail-biter for Vegas as the Jr. Golden Knights gave their penalty kill the ultimate test by putting the Jr. Kings on the power play three times.
The Jr. Kings made a habit of peppering Vegas goaltender Zackary Ortolano with shots the entire game, outshooting Vegas 21-15 through the opening two periods.
And Atlanta’s persistent pressure finally paid off 2:33 into the final frame when Ethan Norton put the visitors ahead to cap a flurry in front of the Vegas net.
Vegas had a power play after the Norton tally but was unable to convert.
But on their third and final power play of the game, Mensch scored to eventually force overtime.
However, the Jr. Golden Knights were a perfect six-for-six on the penalty kill, including a huge kill in overtime to win the special teams battle and keep the Jr. Kings off the score sheet, a big source of pride for Lacroix.
“Yeah, we played in a high school league this year, so we played against older kids who are much stronger and bigger than us,” Lacroix said. “That’s something we concentrated on the entire season, is our penalty kill. Special teams is 40 percent of the game, and if you’re not practicing special teams and concentrating on five-on-five then you’re missing something.”
Just 38 seconds into overtime, it appeared Vegas had ended the game. However, the apparent game-winning tally was waved off because the Atlanta net had been dislodged from its moorings.
The shootout began with Vegas’ Jacob Underhill sending a puck through the five-hole of Rush. The Jr. Kings answered when Owen Larson deked Ortolano before slipping the puck inside the far post.
However, Ortolano, who finished the tournament with a .972 save percentage, would deny the next three attempts. Ian Williams, Vegas’ No. 4 shooter who along with teammate Anthony Mazza tied for third in the tournament with eight points, next beat Rush on a wrister. Mensch delivered the final blow with a well-placed wrist shot which went to Rush’s left, sending the ecstatic Vegas bench pouring onto the ice.
Ortolano made 35 saves in regulation and turned away three of Atlanta’s four shooters in the shootout, the latest strong performance from the Vegas goaltender.
“Ortolano was amazing for us all weekend,” Lacroix said. “He stepped up the entire weekend, had a great tournament and kept us in there. Every time that we thought we were in trouble he came up with a big save for us.”
Not to be outdone, Atlanta’s own talented young netminder in Rush stopped 24 of the 25 shots he faced in regulation.
But what might have impressed their head coach most about this championship, one which he admitted is at least unexpected, is the fact that this team’s original goal was set a bit lower than winning the title in 1A.
“We made ourselves realistic goals,” Lacroix said. “We’re a young team, a mostly first-year team and our goal was to come out here, compete, be responsible in our own end. To get to the semifinals was a goal we felt like we could achieve. From there, we were in bonus round and we just played our hearts out.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.