IRVINE, Calif. – Down two goals with five minutes left to play may not seem like an advantageous position to be in, but the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite had things right where they wanted them.
From head coach Kate Binnie’s perspective, it was no time to panic. Her team had been here before and knew that time was still on their side. All it took was believing in each other as they had done all season.
That confidence paid off as the Pens scored with 1:08 left to erase a two-goal deficit and then capped off the rally with a short-handed goal in overtime to capture their first national title with a dramatic 3-2 win over Little Caesars at the 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier I 14U National Championship.
Isabelle Powell’s shot from the point glanced off Jaidan Fahrny and sailed past a surprised Ava McIllmurray and into the back of the Little Caesars net to cap off frantic comeback and a magic kingdom kind of a week in Southern California. All that was missing was an “I’m going to Disneyland” type moment.
“I’m so proud of these kids. You saw it all week long. They never gave up. They battled from the first game of the tournament right on through to the last. They believed in themselves and they believed in each other. And now they’re national champions,” Binnie said.
That belief would be tested against a battle tested Little Caesars crew that featured two excellent goaltenders and enough talented playmakers up front to keep any team on their heels.
They showed that early on when Elyssa Biederman picked up a loose puck in the corner, sidestepped a Pens defenseman and beat Pens goalie Ava McNaughton low to the blocker side to give Little Caesars the lead 31 seconds into the second period.
Kaia Malachino made it 2-0 less than three minutes later when she slipped behind the Pens defense and redirected a Cassie Hall shot from the point.
The Pens finally solved McIllmurray early in the final frame as Dylan Green won a race for the puck and centered to Bella Vasseur, who buried it for her fourth goal of the tournament.
Any thoughts of a comeback seemed to be put to bed less than a minute later as Malachino sidestepped a pinching defenseman and found a streaking Cassie Hall, who buried her tournament-leading eighth goal.
“Even after we went down by two goals, I told them to get it back in little increments,” Binnie said. “The kids went hard I was impressed with their efforts and they didn’t quit.”
As the clock ticked down to the five-minute mark, the Pens inched closer when Powell staged an end-to-end rush that culminated with a diving backhand shot just out of the reach of McIllmurray.
The Pens continued to scratch and claw for the equalizer and their hard work was rewarded with 1:08 remaining as Laney Potter’s slapshot worked its way through a screen and into the back of the net to force overtime.
“Going into overtime we knew we had them on their heels,” Binnie said. “They had lost their lead and we were going to take it to them.”
It didn’t look that way when Maria Pope whistled off for a trip. Little Caesars went on the attack looking for the game winner. That’s when Bella Vasseur took matters into her own hands, stealing a pass and racing the length of the ice to get off a bad angle shot on net.
“I tell my kids all the time that there’s no such thing as a bad shot on goal,” Binnie said. “We proved that today.”