PITTSBURGH — Trailing 3-2 with time winding down in the third period, Neponset Valley’s Zach Sabatini thought it was all over.
Then the puck landed on Sabatini’s stick. And he changed everything.
Sabatini scored the game-tying goal with eight seconds left and Tyler Yates netted the game-winner at 4:19 of the first overtime as the Neponset Valley (Mass.) River Rats defeated the St. Louis AAA Blues 4-3 to capture the USA Hockey Tier I 18-and-Under national championship Sunday in Pittsburgh.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sabatini said. “It’s literally a dream come true.”
It’s an enormous accomplishment for the Neponset Valley program too. Neponset Valley hadn’t won a state championship prior to this year.
“This is huge because Massachusetts hockey is on the rise and it’s getting better,” Sabatini said. “Nobody expected us to win, and we just proved people wrong. We shocked the world.”
Sabatini netted two goals, while Yates and Mitch Nylen also scored for Neponset Valley. Alec Pellegrino, William Scherer, and Brady Crabtree had the St. Louis goals.
Neponset Valley goaltender Adam Ellison made 25 saves, while Cameron Gornet also stopped 25 shots for St. Louis.
Yates ended the game on a two-on-one, burying Derek Barach’s one-time feed between Gornet’s pads from the top of the crease.
After the goal, Yates and Barach looked at each other in disbelief before heading to the corner to celebrate, tossing their sticks and gloves in the air while the rest of the River Rats joined.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling when you score a goal in overtime and you turn around and see the whole bench coming at you,” Yates said.
Sabatini forced overtime, scoring his second power-play goal of the game with eight seconds left in the third period. Casey Miller’s initial shot from the side of the net popped out to Sabatini, who blasted the rebound into the back of the net.
“We just tried to funnel pucks to the net,” Sabatini said. “The puck landed on my stick and I buried it.”
Neponset Valley went on the power play with 1:23 left in the game after an elbowing call to Pellegrino of St. Louis. Neponset Valley called timeout with less than a minute left and pulled Ellison for a 6-on-4 advantage, setting up Sabatini’s late-game heroics.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Neponset Valley coach John Hutcheon said. “When it went in I knew we had the momentum going into OT. There was sheer excitement on the bench.”
Neponset Valley got a scare in the overtime when Thomas Stahlhuth’s shot from the point rang off the cross bar, but the River Rats got the eventual game-winner two minutes later.
“When I watched it go in the back of the net, I had never been so happy in my entire life,” Sabatini said. “I never won a championship before.”
It took awhile to get to that point.
The teams combined for four goals during a back-and-forth opening period before settling down in the second and third.
“The teams were playing with a lot of emotion in the first period,” Hutcheon said. “Then it settled down into a hockey game.”
St. Louis struck 1:32 into the game as Crabtree slipped a seemingly harmless looking shot between Ellison’s pads.
Neponset Valley got it back on the power play at 10:27 of the first when Sabatini one-timed Niko Rufo’s drop pass behind Gornet.
Nylen gave Neponset Valley a 2-1 lead 1:33 later, sending a shot from the point that squeezed through Gornet’s five hole.
Neponset Valley looked to add to the lead later in the period, going on a two-man advantage for 1:15, but St. Louis had other plans and tied the game. Pellegrino scored an unassisted short-handed goal, blocking a shot at his own blue line to spring him on a breakaway where he roofed a wrister behind Ellison.
The two teams didn’t get another one until Scherer wristed a loose rebound past Ellison, giving the Blues a 3-2 lead in the third period.
Sabatini and Yates made sure Neponset Valley wasn’t finished.
“I couldn’t believe what happened,” Yates said. “You dream of winning a national championship, and once it happens it takes a couple seconds to sink in.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.