ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — No deficit is too large for the Delaware Ducks.
Even in the biggest game of the players’ young lives.
Down 5-1 after the opening period to the Boise Junior Steelheads, the Ducks scored six of the next seven goals — including two late in the third — to win the 1A Division title 7-6 in the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U Nationals at the Cornerstone Community Ice Center on Monday.
“We just tried not to panic,” said Ducks forward Zach Swift, who assisted on the game-tying and game-winning goals. “That was really the first time we were down all tournament. In the semifinals, we were down two. But down 5-1, we were a little scared but we were able to pull it out. I couldn’t be happier with my team.”
Fisher Sellers tallied both goals in the waning minutes of the third to give the Ducks the national title. He said his teammates bickered at each other after getting down by four, but the negatives were turned into positives.
“We really came together and said, ‘You know what, this is the national championship. We need to stop that,’” Sellers said. “‘We need to dig deep, give it all we’ve got and leave everything out there.’ This is my last youth hockey game. I left it all out there, and I know my brothers did, too.”
The Ducks made it to the Division 1A national championship game last year but fell 3-1 to the Jr. Hurricanes. The sting from that loss stayed with the Ducks players the entire year. All but two players from this year’s team experienced that heartbreak in 2017.
“It makes us know what it’s like to lose, and we don’t want to be back in that position — going back in the locker room, hanging our heads. It’s no fun,” Sellers said. “We knew that was something we couldn’t do two years in a row.”
Added Swift: “I did not want to lose again this year. That was a lot of motivation for the whole team.”
The Steelheads (18-3) took a commanding 5-1 at the end of the first period, tallying two goals in a 25-second span. With all the momentum on the Steelheads’ side, the Ducks methodically went to work.
“They were pressuring us the whole time,” Steelheads coach Adam Labarbera said. “You have some good breaks and some breakdowns in our end and the puck goes in the net. It just happens that way sometimes. It’s not for a lack of effort, we played really hard.”
Delaware (32-17-1) scored the next three goals, but Boise scored halfway through the second period to make it 6-4. With the clock winding down in the period, Ducks defenseman Josh Sepela took a slapshot from the point that found the back of the net as the second period horn sounded.
Down just one entering the final 17 minutes, the Ducks were rejuvenated.
Ducks coach Mike Swift had a straightforward discussion with his guys between periods.
“Just keep going,” he said. “We battled all the way back, one goal down. Just keep coming, just keep coming and the goals will come. Just keep pressing, you’ve got a lot of time left.”
Well, the time kept shrinking for the Ducks. After having a goal disallowed with 3:21 remaining, the Ducks didn’t let that get the best of them.
Swift took a shot from the circle and the rebound bounced to Sellers, who was all alone in front of the net to poke the puck in to tie the game with 3:13 on the clock.
“When we tied the game, we knew we weren’t stopping,” Sellers said. “We came back from a 5-1 deficit, and there’s no stopping us at that point.”
Just a couple shifts later, Swift and Sellers — who have great chemistry having played together since 14U — found themselves in a similar situation.
Swift has a special move in the faceoff circle in which he pushes the puck between the center’s legs and then passes. He said he’d been using it all tournament but didn’t try it in the national championship game because the Steelheads players knew about the move.
“I figured maybe they’d forget about it toward the end, so I gave it a shot,” Swift said.
Swift put it through the legs of the Steelheads player and then slid it over to Sellers in the backdoor crease.
“He got a little tied up but sent it right over and all I had to do was lift the puck over his pads,” said Sellers, who will play collegiately next year at Miami University.
The goal gave the Ducks their first and only lead of the game with 2:07 left in the third period.
Coach Swift said it’s not a coincidence the puck ended up on Sellers’ stick from Swift for the two biggest goals in the Ducks’ season.
“One of them, it always seems to end up on their stick. It’s amazing,” coach Swift said. “They’re looking for each other, and good things happen.”
In the moments after his team was celebrating the victory for the national title, Sellers had a tough time describing what the feeling was like.
“Speechless, speechless,” Sellers said. “It’s amazing.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.