PITTSBURGH — The Chicago Mission set out a goal at the beginning of the season to capture the USA Hockey Tier I 16-and-Under national championship.
Chicago’s Ryan Wagner scored two power-play goals, helping the top-ranked Mission fend off the hard-charging Connecticut Wolfpack 4-3 to win the Tier I 16U national championship Sunday in Pittsburgh.
“It feels pretty good, I’m not going to lie,” Chicago Mission coach Chris Michael said. “I don’t know if words can describe it right now, just how proud I am of my boys.”
It’s the first 16U national championship in Chicago Mission program history.
“We have a lot of pride in our program,” Michael said. “A lot of great coaches and teams have come before us. This isn’t just for us but for all those teams as well.”
Chicago raced out to a 3-0 first-period lead but watched helplessly in the second period as Connecticut rallied to tie during the wild back-and-forth affair.
“Obviously, you don’t want to see a 3-0 lead evaporate, but that’s credit to my players for staying with it,” Michael said. “Any other team would’ve folded.”
Five of the seven total goals were scored on the power play, Wagner and Connecticut’s Kevin Darrar both netting two. Matthew Wolf and Vasili Kolias also scored for Chicago, while Zachary Guittari found the back of the net for Connecticut.
Wagner put Chicago back on top to stay late in the second period with his second power-play goal of the game.
The game-winning goal came with 1:24 left in the second as Wagner fired a one-timer past Connecticut goaltender Andrew Tucci from the right-wing boards.
“It was a one-timer short side,” Wagner said. “I had a feeling it was going in.”
Chicago goaltender Elliot Gerth, who made 22 saves, was solid, if not spectacular in the final period, turning aside all shots he faced, including several quality opportunities from point-blank range.
“My goaltender is a mentally strong kid,” Michael said. “The credit goes to Elliot for staying mentally strong. Any other kid might fold. I never thought of pulling him because I knew I didn’t have to.”
Gerth had plenty of help from his defense in the final minute, not allowing a Connecticut shot with Tucci pulled and the Wolfpack desperately pressing for the tying goal. Tucci stopped 19 shots.
One final clear with less than 10 seconds left was all Chicago needed to clinch the championship. As all the sticks and gloves came off in a furious eruption, the Mission players cleared the bench to mob their goaltender.
“It was a sigh of relief,” Wagner said. “It just feels great. The whole team worked so hard all year. We really deserved it.”
Wagner put Chicago on the board with a power-play goal at 9:42 of the opening period. Wagner, operating at center point, sent a rising wrist shot top shelf behind Tucci, giving Chicago the 1-0 lead.
“I just walked to the middle, had a lane, so I put it up top,” Wagner said.
Connecticut’s Stephen Marsico thought he tied the game at 2:39 of the first, but the goal was waived off because of an interference penalty to the Wolfpack.
The Mission took advantage with their second power-play goal of the period. Wolf put Chicago ahead 2-0, tapping in the rebound from Wagner’s shot from the left circle.
Kolias gave Chicago a three-goal lead 40 seconds later, sending one-time redirect from Tanner Laczynski between Tucci’s pads.
The Wolfpack got a power-play goal of their own at 14:35 of the second as Darrar’s blast from the point deflected behind Gerth.
Giuttari cut the Chicago lead to 3-2 soon after, pounding the rebound from Alexander Esposito’s wrist shot past Gerth.
Connecticut cashed in on a lengthy two-man advantage, tying the game 3-3 at 6:54 of the second period. Darrar scored his second power-play goal of the game, slipping his own rebound behind Gerth.
Wagner killed all of the Connecticut momentum with his second power-play goal and eventual game-winner.
“He’s the leader of the group,” Michael said of Wagner. “He’s going to move on and be a higher level hockey player, where he goes I don’t know, but he started leading this group on Day 1, and he led them to the promise land.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.