For a team as potent as Little Caesars, filled with skilled individuals throughout the lineup, sometimes the line can be blurred between playing as a team, playing thorough hockey and playing for oneself.
The Detroit-based group came together as a team and played a complete game, reserving the team a spot in the history books. Little Caesars had a three-goal second period outburst led by Michael Mesic and Frank Nazar to unseat a Florida Alliance team propped up by a hot goalie in Jacob Fowler. Nazar finished with three points in the 4-0 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 14U championship win.
Little Caesars cooked the competition throughout the Youth Tier I 14U Tournament, going 6-0-0-0 and outscoring opponents by a 35-6 margin. Despite entering the tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for this group, which made this win a lot more sweet for head coach Brian Felsner.
“We had some rough patches this season, but in the last few weeks of the season we’ve really turned it on in terms of everybody,” Felsner said. “It took 18 guys playing together for a long stretch and I’m really proud of that. This is not an easy tournament. Hats off to Florida, it’s not easy just getting here, let alone winning it. Florida played a great game as well. We’re happy with the result, obviously, but with everyone who participated.”
The atmosphere was vivid early, with both Florida and Little Caesars fans spirited and dabbed in their respective team colors. Fowler came up large on a handful of occasions early in the game, including when Florida had to send out their penalty kill late in the opening frame.
Tucker Shedd took a shot from the blue line that surpassed a screen and pinged off the crossbar before Fowler made a save and drew a whistle on the same possession. It was one of three posts Little Caesars hit, while Jackson Graber struck one for Florida.
Just 47 seconds into the second period, Little Caesars gained another man advantage. Michael Mesic hit a post as the game started to shift in their favor. Little Caesars didn’t score on the power-play, but struck a few minutes later.
Off of a face-off won by Frank Nazar, Cameron VanSickle quickly slid the puck over to Mesic standing back door to put Little Caesars up 1-0.
With play at 4-on-4, Mesic received a pass from Nazar and converted on a one-timer to push Little Caesars up 2-0 with 4:43 remaining in the second period.
Only a minute later, Little Caesars forward Justin Varner stormed into the zone while on the power play. Taking the puck to the net, he shifted to his backhand before reaching the goal line to add another goal with 3:32 left in the middle frame.
Just like that, a Florida comeback seemed a lot more daunting. After being taken down on a breakaway, Varner was granted a penalty shot with two minutes remaining in the second period. Fowler came up big with a pad save to keep the Alliance’s hopes alive, but after the three-goal outburst in the second period the game’s tide had truly shifted.
“We had a couple of power plays, we didn’t score but got the momentum,” Felsner said. “That was really turning point that really gave us our opening, we got a penalty shot after the third one. I thought the second period we came out really strong, it was kind of an unforgotten period. It was a big period for us.”
Little Caesars goaltender Trent Boryszcuk and his team were one period away from a National Championship, nursing a 3-0 lead, but the Novi, Mich., native would have to come up large to maintain it.
Boryszcuk’s group did a good job of staying disciplined, as they were only assessed one penalty throughout the game and none in the third period. It helped Little Caesars keep the flow of the game and continue to roll their lines.
Graber struck the post for Florida as they tried to muster up a goal, and then a few more. The Alliance posted 11 shots in the third period alone, but Boryszcuk saved them all, compiling a 24-save shutout. Fowler stopped 31 shots for Florida.
An empty-net goal from Nazar with nine seconds left iced the victory and an extremely impressive run through the entire tournament for Little Caesars.
“I’m proud of all our hard work,” Nazar said. “We had a lead and 16 miles to go and the boys put together a strong period to win.”
The team celebrated, storming Boryszcuk and ditching any equipment they didn’t need to dismantle in a dressing room. Sticks, gloves and helmets flooded the ice.
There Nazar stood, without many of the tools that helped him put together a three-point effort in the biggest game of his life so far and a tournament-leading 15 points, four more than any other skater.
He did hold a championship hat and memories that are set to last a lifetime, moments before his teammates skated off with their well-earned Championship banner and golden trophy plate.
As his teammates lined the blue line and Nazar searched for words, it allowed him a few seconds to soak in the scene before joining in on the celebration again.
“It’s unbelievable,” Nazar said. Nothing like you’ve seen before really, so it’s one to have.”
And they got it. Little Caesars has the crown.