Steve Guilbault admits he’s watched the same play over and over since it happened. And he’s still on the edge of his seat while reviewing it.
With the Northern Virginia Ice Dogs up 3-2 in the Southeastern District Tier II 16U girls championship game earlier this month, there was a faceoff in its own zone with 9.9 seconds remaining. Carolina Lightning had pulled its goalie for an extra skater to intensify the pressure.
“Every time I watch this video, I almost have a heart attack, even though I know how it ends,” Guilbault said.
There was a mad scramble in front of the Ice Dogs’ net, and seconds on the click felt like minutes. As the buzzer sounded, the Ice Dogs players erupted in joy. They were headed to the Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships for the first time in program history.
“It’s very exciting for the girls,” said Guilbault, who is in his third year coaching the Alexandria, Virginia-based team. “This could be the highlight of a lot of these girls hockey careers, so the fact that we made it is incredible. ... I don’t think it’s even sunk in yet for the girls. Probably not even for myself.”
The Ice Dogs had been eliminated in the district tournament the last two years, falling in heartbreaking fashion with three overtime loses.
“I always knew the girls could do it, but I don’t think they believed it,” Guilbault said. “We’ve kind of peaked at the right time in the last month. We had some inconsistent playing during the season, but then we won a tournament. We dropped that first game and then won by three shutouts; and then we won our league, the CBHL [Chesapeake Bay Hockey League] playoffs, knocking off the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. I think that’s when the girls started believing in themselves.”
At districts, the Ice Dogs and Lightning squared off in a best-of-three series since they are the only two Tier II 16U programs. The teams played three times earlier in the season with the Lightning winning the two regular-season matchups, and the Ice Dogs rebounded with a win in the semifinals of the league tournament.
In the opening district game at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs, Florida, the Ice Dogs were up 2-1 when they scored an empty-net goal to ice the victory.
“The second game that day we kind of figured they’d be coming hard because this was do-or-die for them,” Guilbault said.
The Lightning were up 2-1 entering the third period and trying to force a winner-take-all third game. On the first shift of the third, the Ice Dogs netted a goal. Less than two minutes later, the Ice Dogs grabbed the lead for good. That set up the excitement in the waning moments as the Ice Dogs held on for the win.
“One of the motivational factors after the second period when we were down 2-1, I said, ‘Girls, you said you wanted to go to the beach tomorrow. If you don’t win the game tonight, you’re not going to the beach tomorrow.’ That’s the motivation that they needed, and I think we all came back with sunburns. But it was all worth it.”
The team’s leading scorer this season is Margaret Kadlec, who is averaging 1.5 points per game. Also having a strong year offensively are Ciara Weets, Megan Jenkins and Frances Penney.
“We’re not a highly-skilled team individually, but we play well as a team,” Guilbault said. “We forecheck hard, backcheck hard, have strong D, strong goaltending. It’s really a team effort.”
The Ice Dogs’ top goalie, Sydney Stropes, has tallied eight shutouts and 22 wins this year and has a .949 save percentage.
The Ice Dogs (29-15-7) likely won’t be one of the favorites heading into nationals, but Guilbault thinks his girls will come in with momentum and plenty of confidence.
“I just hope they enjoy the moment and have fun,” Guilbault said. “We’re not really ranked very high in the rankings, we’re the 31st, and I think teams one, three, four, five or something in Tier II in the nation are going to nationals. We’re not expecting a Cinderella story. I think the girls are realistic and I just want them to enjoy the moment and try not to get overwhelmed by it.”
Guilbault’s goals for his team at nationals are manageable.
“Winning a game would be ideal,” Guilbault said. “That would be, I think, a storybook ending to this season. But realistically, if we can be competitive in all the games, I would be very satisfied with that.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.