This was a new look for Jason Smith.
A welcomed look, but a new one nonetheless.
Smith, who usually goes to and from the hockey rink in a cowboy hat, was sporting a new blue hat on Sunday. Except this one read “National Champions.”
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” a modest Smith said after scoring the winning goal for the Montana Thunderblades. “I hardly even saw it. The puck just kind of showed up there, and I just chopped at it. It was an extremely exciting goal — the best goal I’ve ever scored in my life.”
That was the understatement of the day.
Smith netted the winning power-play goal in the Thunderblades’ 5-4 victory over the Atlanta Fire in the title game of the USA Hockey Tier II 16 & Under Conference 2A National Championship.
It was the third goal of the tournament for Smith, who lives on a ranch and is known as “Cowboy” to his teammates. Asked if he was surprised that “Cowboy” would lasso up the game-winning goal, teammate Matt Mohar said, “Not at all.”
Smith’s decisive tally capped a back-and-forth contest that initially saw Atlanta take a 1-0 lead in the first period on a goal by Zachary Sabatini. Montana responded with three straight goals to take a 3-1 advantage before Atlanta netted three of the next four tallies to forge a 4-4 deadlock after two periods.
“They were a pretty hard-core team,” Mohar said of the Fire, who had the leading scorer (Connor Boyd) and third-leading scorer (Erik Plumb) in the 2A division. “They were solid, but we just played better.”
The decisive goal was set up by a controversial penalty on the Fire, which was whistled for having too many men on the ice with 1:20 remaining. Seconds after the infraction, Dunk Abbott unleashed a blast from the point. The rebound went to Brandt Miller, who took a whack at it before the puck ended up on Smith’s stick.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“It’s been an incredible week,” Smith said. “The competition has been excellent, the atmosphere has been great. Our team’s been playing together a really long time and this was just a great end to the season.”
For Atlanta, it was a disappointing finish, especially considering the penalty that led to the winning goal.
“It hurts,” Fire defenseman Kyle O’Donnell said. “I think we played pretty well. We just didn’t get the bounces. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Maybe it wasn’t meant to be for the Fire, who hit several posts in the game and had numerous scoring chances thwarted in the third period by Montana goaltender Taylor Hulslander.
But for the Thunderblades, they will leave West Chester, Pa., with nothing but great memories from the 2010 National Championship.
“We played to our potential,” Montana coach Mark Loeding said. “This was one of our goals at the beginning of the year. The boys were committed, followed the system and played for each other. And because of all that, we were able to receive the benefit of the play at the end today.”
Miller and teammate Kyle Stone each finished in the top 10 in scoring for the 2A division, combining for 10 goals and nine assists. Not to be overshadowed, though, was the performance of Hulslander, who finished with 19 saves in the championship game and went 3-0-0 with a 4.00 goals-against average for the tournament.
“What a great trip, man,” Loeding concluded. “Fourteen hours and we’ll be back in Big Sky country.”
That’s a journey, for sure, but one that undoubtedly feels better when you’re sporting a National Champions hat.
As for that cowboy hat? Well, that’s what overhead storage is for.
“It feels incredible,” Smith said before walking away with his fellow champions. “I’m probably gonna wear this hat all week.”
Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Tag(s): 16 & Under