PITTSBURGH — All season long, head coach John Hutcheon and the Neponset Valley coaching staff told their players to get to the slot and drive to the net.
It worked out in Neponset Valley’s favor Sunday, leading to a 4-3 overtime victory against St. Louis AAA Blues and the program’s first-ever USA Hockey Tier I 18-and-Under national championship.
“We preach, get it to the net for a mid-lane drive,” Hutcheon said. “It’s funny, that’s exactly what won us the national championship.”
First, Zach Sabatini tied the game late in the third period, forcing overtime with eight seconds left in the game before Tyler Yates clinched the title in overtime — both on center-lane drives to the net.
Yates ended the game, burying a two-on-one feed from the top of the crease, while Sabatini collected a rebound, also from point-blank range.
“We just went hard to the net,” Sabatini said. “We tried to funnel pucks to the front and get in front of them.”
Hutcheon emerged from the celebratory Neponset Valley locker room after the River Rats’ victory all smiles with a Spiderman mask atop his head.
“They call it the Spidey Mask,” Hutcheon said. “It’s kind of like our version of the hard hat. The boys gave it out and I got it today.”
The players have a Spiderman ball they kick around hours before the game to warm up and stay loose. They thought a mask would compliment the ball well so they purchased one around Labor Day. Goaltender Drew Michaels got the mask during Neponset Valley’s semifinal victory Saturday.
“Whoever gets it last gets to hand it out after the next win,” Hutcheon said. “I think it was a unanimous decision, the boys wanted to give it to me, so I’ll gladly wear it out today.”
Rooting From Afar
Two-time defending champion Shattuck-St. Mary’s might not have reached the 18U title game, but 15-year head coach Tom Ward’s club had plenty of interested fans observing from afar, including several alumni currently in the NHL.
None are more famous than Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby, Chicago Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews and New York Rangers’ star forward Derek Stepan, who was in town for a game Friday night.
“Had a lot of messages from the alums wishing the boys well,” Ward said. “They’re all watching from a distance.”
Other notable alumni include Minnesota Wild star forward Zach Parise, Columbus Blue Jackets’ defenseman Jack Johnson, and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Drew Stafford, the latter two being members of Shattuck’s 2003 national championship team along with Crosby and others.
Ward said he shows the players text messages of encouragement from current NHL stars like Crosby.
“He said he wanted to pass on luck to the boys,” Ward said. “That’s one of the great things about all these guys that have moved on… they’re just good guys, they’re humble, and they could walk into the rink right now and you wouldn’t know.
“They’re just happy to be part of it.”
Committed to college hockey
Seven players from 18U championship finalists Neponset Valley and the St. Louis AAA Blues have already committed to play Division I hockey.
Neponset Valley commitments include: Zach Sabatini and Mitch Nylen (Sacred Heart), Niko Rufo (Providence), Mark Hamilton and Casey Miller (University of Massachusetts), and Gregg Burmaster (St. Lawrence).
The lone St. Louis commitment is Chase Berger, who is headed to Penn State.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.