AMHERST, N.Y. -- Once you get to the Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 16U National Championships, there is no easy route to the finals.
However, the third-seeded Colorado Thunderbirds might have wondered if they drew the short straw when they saw how the pool groupings turned out.
In their pool was none other than Team Wisconsin, who beat Colorado last year in the finals in a four-overtime 2-1 thriller. Also placed in Pool C were the speedy, relentless Cape Cod Whalers.
“When you look at the four teams in our division, we got a tough draw,” Colorado coach Angelo Ricci said. “I don’t look at it that way at all. I look at it whoever is on your schedule you got to play. It doesn’t matter. It prepares you for the weekend.”
Colorado started out with a 4-0 win against the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes.
“I thought we played a strong game,” Ricci said. “I think we set the tone. They’re a good team. I just thought we played really well yesterday and got opportunistic when we got our chances.”
Their next opponent was Cape Cod, which survived a 2-1 shootout win against Wisconsin.
The game started out all Colorado, as the Thunderbirds jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead on a pair of goals by Phillip Knies and one by Ben Lown.
However, Cape Cod was not a team to back down.
“By far one of the most skilled and fast teams in terms of their speed,” Ricci said. “They were relentless on their forecheck.”
Cape Cod’s Jay O’Brien scored in the second and then Casey Carreau scored late in the third to suddenly make it a one-goal game.
“A lot of penalties early, both ways, took the flow out if the game,” Ricci explained. “Once the game got going, it was a good game back and forth. Both goalies made big saves at certain times. Their D is very mobile and active, so it was a good hockey game.”
Ashton Fry made sure Cape Cod didn’t have the opportunity to pull its goalie, clinching the game with 3:05 left. He appeared to whiff on his initial shot but was able to recover and scoop the puck in.
Colorado relies heavily on their defense, letting up 69 goals in 67 games this year.
“The most impressive thing with our team is our defensive side,” Ricci said. “I think we have the best one-two tandem in the country. All year they split the games, and they’ve both been very good. Dayton [Rasmussen] has 16 shutouts and [Austin] Park has 15. We have 31 shutouts.
“I think we put together a solid year, but it all comes down to this weekend. Everybody has a record of 0-0 starting the weekend.”
After two games, Colorado is the only team in this tough group with the maximum six points. With Wisconsin beating Carolina 4-1, Colorado is ensured of making it out of the group.
“We’re guaranteed to be playing on Sunday morning,” Ricci said. “We want to get that one seed going into the weekend.”
To get that No. 1 seed, the Thunderbirds have to beat the team they faced in the 2014 championship game. In fact, beating Wisconsin could knock Wisconsin out of the second round.
“We played them last year, in Green Bay. I’m sure if this was like TV it would be meant to be,” Ricci laughed. “Our guys will be a little pumped and excited for that game. We saw the schedule, we said we would like to be 2-0 going into the game against them. It’s not about last year. It’s about winning and advancing and wanting to play our best game heading into Sunday.”
Colorado has survived the tough pool, but there are a lot more obstacles ahead trying to get back to the title game.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.