PLYMOUTH, Minn. -- Last year was supposed to be the year for Prep Hockey, a team encompassing three schools from the northwest Chicago suburbs. The team was going to go win it all — until everything came crashing down in a 50-second span at the state tournament.
“It was a heartbreaker,” said Nick Panos, the team’s longtime coach.
In the aftermath of that loss, Panos recalled one of his players, the quiet junior Nicholas Lamberg, who had taken the result particularly hard.
“I think his knees buckled on the ice,” Panos said. “He would not leave, and he said, ‘It’s not happening again, Coach.’”
On Monday, he lived up to his words.
Lamberg scored twice, including an empty-netter in the final minute, as Prep held off the Des Moines (Iowa) Oak Leafs 6-3 in the title game at the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Division II National Championships in Plymouth, Minnesota.
The win secured Prep’s first national title, while Lamberg led all players in the tournament with 17 points, including a tournament-high 11 goals.
“He’s got to be the MVP of the whole season,” Panos said. “I think he got the most goals and the most points. And he’s the kid who said it wouldn’t happen again. He was just so determined.”
After the heartbreaker in 2022, many weren’t sure how the 2022-23 team would stack up. But with an experienced squad, including several seniors, the team built towards the national championship game.
Avenging its loss at the Illinois state tournament, Prep — which combines letters from its three schools: Prospect, Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove — arrived in Plymouth ready to fly.
The team shut out the Northwest Arkansas Ice Hogs 5-0 in the opener Thursday, then defeated the Gillette (Wy.) Grizzlies 5-1 the next day.
The East Islip (N.Y.) Chiefs gave Prep a scare in the final preliminary-round game Saturday. During a back-and-forth affair, East Islip tied the game 6-6 with a short-handed goal midway through the third period before Prep eventually pulled away to win 8-6.
Two wins in the playoffs on Sunday — 6-2 over Keller (Texas), then 5-1 over Bishop Canevin (Pa.) — set up Monday morning’s final against Des Moines.
The Oak Leafs, who also entered the game undefeated, were coming off a 3-2 overtime win against the Omaha (Neb.) Jr. Lancers on Sunday night.
Prep came out strong, with Kounosuke Tsuchiya and Matthew Melachrinakis tallying first-period goals, then Nicholas Albrecht and Lamberg each scoring power-play goals in the second.
Trailing 0-4, the Oak Leafs found their legs in an intense third period, starting at the 15:10 mark when Jakub Tomecek got a goal back on the power play. Melachrinakis scored again for Prep two minutes later, but Des Moines cut the lead to 5-3 on goals from Jackson Krier and Carson Clemmensen.
After a back-and-forth few minutes, Lamberg sealed it with 51 seconds left. Chasing the puck the length of the ice, he grabbed it behind Des Moines’ goal, then turned and slipped it into the net.
When Albrecht stole the puck with 15 seconds remaining, the Prep captain carried it behind his own net to run out the clock and let the celebration ensue.
“To get that early lead on a team like this was crucial,” Panos said.
He called Des Moines “a fantastic team.” “They have a ton of talent,” Panos said. “All four lines were deep. Great defense.”
In addition to Lamberg, William Behls (6-7—12), Albrecht (3-8—11) and Ryan Knauss (4-6—10) all scored in double-digits for Prep.
“Nick Albrecht is our top defenseman,” Panos said. “He’s just an incredible player. No one has more heart than him.”
When Michael Delea joined the team last season, Prep already had two varsity goalies. Panos decided to keep three.
“It was tough trying to get all of them ice time,” Panos said. “I kept telling him stick with it, you’re going to be the starter next year, and he’s just been lights out.”
At nationals, Delea started each of Prep’s first five games. Ahead of the championship game, he told Panos: “I’m ready,”
“And we’ve been riding his coattails,” Panos said. “He’s unbelievable.”
Across six games, Delea gave up just 13 goals on 105 shots for a 2.17 goals-against average and .876 save percentage. After ending last season in heartbreak, the Prep players ended this season by throwing their helmets and gloves high in the air and celebrating on the ice as “We are the Champions” blared over the loudspeaker.
“The whole weekend was just unbelievable,” Panos said. “I’m so happy for this team and organization.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.