CHICAGO – When the latest youth hockey rankings were released just before the 2022 Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships, there were a couple of familiar faces sitting atop the leaderboard at the Tier I 14U division.
Ultimately, championships are won on the ice and not in power rankings. There is little doubt that Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the Chicago Mission have proven this week that they have earned their top billing.
And after all the prognostication, analytics and number crunching, the only thing left is for these two youth hockey powerhouse programs to face off with the title on the line.
“Deep down side, I was hoping we were going to play them. I love good games. I love when teams come ready to work and obviously Shattuck does, and we will be ready for them,” Mission head coach Christian Hmura said after his team’s dominating defensive performance against a talented Green Bay Jr. Gamblers team.
“It’s exactly the way you’d want it drawn up from the rankings and stuff like that. You’ve got number one playing number two. I think our guys are excited. Everybody’s kind of rolling and I like where we’re sitting, so it’ll be a great game.”
They’ll need to put together another strong effort to knock the defending 14U champs off their pedestal. Shattuck showed the resiliency of a true champion in bouncing back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat a gutsy Rochester (N.Y.) Saints team, 4-3, in a shootout.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a little nervous after the first period,” said Christian Bragnalo, the head coach of Shattuck. “We obviously didn’t have the start we wanted and we dug ourselves a hole. That was absolutely great resiliency by our players. They kept playing and we ended up tying it up and going to a shootout and winning. It was a great job by them.”
The Saints jumped on Shattuck early, scoring goals 17 seconds apart to take an early lead. After Shattuck controlled the territorial advantage off the opening faceoff, Rochester countered with Jack Murtagh finding Chase Jette behind the net who fed a trailing Cooper Dennis who buried his fifth goal of the tournament.
Then, 17 seconds later, Blake Arrowsmith cashed in a cross-ice feed from Shawn Costello and snuck one past Shattuck goalie Harrison Boettiger from a tough angle.
It was the first time the defending 14U champs found themselves in a 2-0 hole trailed since their first game against Nashville.
Sometimes to take down the reigning champs you need a little puck luck, like the kind the Saints got when Jette’s centering pass went off the skate of a Shattuck defender and into the back of the net.
Anyone who’s watched Shattuck play over the years knew this game was far from over. Owen Chartier broke the ice with a power-play goal early in the second period, and Gavin Cash deposited it a loose puck past Saints goalie Ethan Phillips to cut the lead to one.
Masun Fleece capped the comeback late in the middle frame off a feed from Lukas Sawchyn.
After a scoreless third period and full overtime period that was full of plenty of back and forth action, Fleece was the only one of four Shattuck shooters to slip a shot past Phillips, who was outstanding in a 43-save effort.
Boettiger was just one save better, slamming the door on the Saints shooters to put Shattuck in a position to win its fourth 14U title in the past eight years.
“A big hand clap to [Rochester]. They had good players, we good players, there was plays made up and down the ice. It was just a great hockey game,” Bragnalo said. “Obviously super exciting to be on the winning side of it because I’ve been on the other side of it plenty of times.”
You hold a team as talented as the Junior Gamblers to five shots, including none in the third period, you know you’ve outdid yourself on the defensive side of the ledger.
Mission goaltender Bjorn Bronas was the loneliest players in the building, facing only two shots in the first, three in the second and none in the third. That’s all thanks to a great game plan that the Mission coaches drew up to shut down some of the Gamblers talented forwards while pressuring the defense with a relentless forecheck.
“Part of our defensive mentality was to be hard on pucks and force them to make decisions they don’t want to make or were not ready to make. I think that all fared well for us today,” Hmura said.
Ethan Baker and Jacob Hutchen staked the Mission to a 2-0 lead through two periods and the defense did the rest. Asher Barnett and Ronald Bender added power play goals in the third period but the game was well in hand by that point.
“If we play our style and make sure that we control the game from that perspective we’re a pretty good team,” Hmura said.
They’ll need a repeat performance tomorrow if they’re going to snatch the crown from the heads of the 14U kings from Minnesota.