SIMSBURY, Conn. — The Charlotte Jr. Checkers surged early, faltered towards the middle and picked it up at the end.
It all added up to a 4-2 win over the Nashville Jr. Predators Sunday morning at the USA Hockey Tier II 18-and-Under A national championship game at the International Skating Center of Connecticut.
“This is the first national championship for a team out of North Carolina,” Checkers coach Bob Halkidis said. “So it’s a huge, huge accomplishment for all these young gentlemen. We’re really proud of them to bring home the first national championship for North Carolina, especially for Charlotte.”
The Checkers lead 1-0 after one, but Nashville scored a pair of second-period goals to take a 2-1 lead heading into the final period. Charlotte’s Brendan Logan scored to tie the game just 31 seconds into the third, and the Predator’s Noah Keener was called for a five-minute major for elbowing after colliding with Eric Mura at 4:17.
That proved to be a costly penalty for Nashville, as the Checkers scored twice on the extended power play to go ahead for good. Thomas Grove’s goal at 4:45 made it 3-2, while Stephan Villa snapped a shot in the net from the right post over a sprawled out Peter Yasso (37 saves) to make it 4-2 at 6:50.
“The puck went around the boards, down the others side to the far corner and I was on the back side,” Grove said of his goal. “Stephen Villa brought it around the goal and found me back side. A perfect pass right on the stick and I just put it top right.”
Charlotte dominated play in the first, as its forecheck was able to keep the puck in Nashville’s zone for much of the period.
The Checkers took a 1-0 lead at 5:21 when Max Guzinksi jumped on a loose puck near the right post and flicked into the net amidst traffic. Charlotte was aggressive on its lone penalty kill of the period and nearly went up 2-0 when Sasha Makarov broke free down the slot, but his shot just missed the net.
Nashville took a timeout between the first and the second, as coach Ryan Lessnau had his team skate several sprints near the blue line. It worked, as the Predators came out much stronger in the second period.
Kevin Greer’s power-play goal tied the score at 7:57, while Mark Vanderslice broke free up the slot and backhanded a shot past Charlotte goalie Michael Balzano (14 saves) to make it 2-1 at 11:05.
“We played two games [Saturday]; we were just exhausted,” Grove said. “And our team happens to take a lot of penalties. Killing the penalties, we just got tired, but we came out and dug deep in our hearts and pulled it out.”
As they had throughout the tournament, Charlotte got contributions throughout the lineup, with 10 different players contributing at least one point Sunday.
“We have well-balanced team,” Halkidis said. “We have a really simple system that we play and the guys execute it well. Our goaltending was really superb this tournament. If you want to give credit to anyone on this hockey club, it would be Michael Balzano and Bryan Holmberg. Those two have played out of their minds.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.