Rochester, Mich. – A plethora of hugs, high fives and excited yells followed the Rhode Island Saints onto the ice as the buzzer sounded. In a hard-fought tournament, they had just beaten the St. Louis Blues, 6-2, to win the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 18U National Championship.
“It’s just surreal. There are a lot of emotions,” said head coach Matt Plante. “A national championship with these guys in this program, there are a lot of three-year guys on this team that were the pioneers of the program. For them to feel this, I can’t put into words what it means for these guys to feel this feeling.”
Rhode Island had the best early chance less than just five minutes in. Following a shot from the point, Cameron O’Neill collected the puck and tried to jam it in, but Luka Myller stood tall with a toe save and covered the loose puck.
The Saints would eventually break through with 10:48 to go in the opening frame. Shorthanded, Zachary Aben collected the puck from Ryan O’Connell and beat Myller to make it 1-0. The score would stay that way through the first period.
O’Neill would break through a minute and a half into the second period to make it 2-0. Micah Berger and Seth Constance picked up the assists. William Lawrence would make it a 3-0 game with a power play goal at the 13:40 mark of the second, which caused a goalie change for St. Louis.
Shortly after, Jason Stefanek made it a 4-0 game. Similar to the semifinal game, Stefanek scored less than a minute later again which pushed the lead to 5-0.
St. Louis responded with a goal shortly after. Maxwell Wagner collected a feed from Andrew Clarke and found the back of the net to make it 5-1. Clarke would score a goal of his own early in the third period, but the comeback fell short. An empty-netter from O’Neill with 2:02 to go pushed the lead to 6-2.
O’Neill scored two goals and collected an additional assist in the championship game. After battling for the program over the last few years, he felt happy to be able to contribute on the biggest stage for his team.
“I’ve been with the program for three years,” he said. “After we weren’t able to play in one of our Nationals, it has been a goal of mine to come here and not only play but to win. Last year, we went 0-3 at Nationals. To be able to come back and win in my final youth hockey tournament is unbelievable.”
Aben was another player that has helped the program grow to where it is now. After battling year after year, including not playing in last year’s tournament, Aben could not contain his excitement after the victory.
“It’s an unreal feeling. It’s hard to put into words right now, honestly,” Aben. “I can’t stress enough how hard this group has worked and how much we deserve this. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”