PLYMOUTH, Mich. – Declan McDonnell and Austin Robinson scored second-period goals, and Luke Pavicich stopped 24 shots as the Buffalo Jr. Sabres held on to beat Little Caesars, 2-1, in the title game of the Chipotle-USA Hockey 15 Only National Championship.
It was a fitting end to not only a great week of hockey but to a long youth hockey season that began last August.
“It’s been a long year and we’ve had our ups and downs, but we managed to play our best game of the year today,” said Declan McDonnell, who scored his tournament best seventh goal in the second period to break a scoreless tie.
The battle between the tournament’s top two seeds had all the makings of a heavyweight bout with both teams spending most of the first period feeling each other out. After surrendering the first goal in four of its first five games, the Sabres they would need to weather an early storm if things were going to go their way.
“We just won five games to get here and every game was a battle,” said Jr. Sabres Head Coach Jacob Brozyna. “Little Caesars is such a good team and we just knew it was going to be a dog fight.”
As the momentum shifted in the second period so did the quality of scoring chances. Once those chances did come, the Sabres took advantage of them as they have throughout the week.
McDonnell teamed up with David Bunn on a give-and- go play and slipped a backhand shot past the outstretched glove of Little Caesars goalie Hunter Garvey to break a scoreless tie at the 6:18 mark of the second period.
The Jr. Sabres made it 2-0 six minutes later when Bunn’s shot was blocked by a Little Caesars defenseman and the loose puck came to Austin Robinson who rifled a shot past Garvey.
“I thought we had the legs and the momentum in the second period,” Brozyna said. “We knew if we were tight and we handled them for the first period that we had a really good chance.”
Like their opponent, most of these players have grown up together under the blue and gold banner, and that chemistry came through all week long on the ice and in the locker room.
“We’re a tight group and we all love each other,” said Sabres goaltender Luke Pavicich, who played his best game of the tournament stopping 24 of 25 shots while dealing with heavy traffic in front of the net.
His only blemish on the day came at the 10:45 mark of the third period when Mark Estapa poked home a loose puck during a scramble in front of the net.
“In the third period we showed the resilience and character that we showed all season, and we did everything but tie it up,” Draper said. “In a situation like that you need a bounce or a break or something like that but the puck was rolling or hitting the goalie but in the end our kids battled hard but just came up short.”
Little Caesars continued to battle until the end, throwing everything it had at Pavicich, but he remained unflustered until the final buzzer sounded and players spilled over the boards to mob their teammate.
“This is a special day,” said Kevyn Adams, the Vice President and Director of Academy of Hockey at the HarborCenter. “A lot of hard work has gone into this over the four years. When the HarborCenter was built, Terry and Kim Pegula laid out the vision of how this could work from the young all the way up to the NHL. This was the ultimate goal, to put these kids in a position to have dreams come true.”
That plans seems to be working as Jr. Sabres teams represented the New York District in three of four USA Hockey Tier I tournament’s, and its 12 & Under team won the state tournament.
“So much credit has to go to [Sabres owners] Terry and Kim Pegula because this wouldn’t be happening if they weren’t doing what they do,” Adams said as the players continued their on-ice celebration.
“Their vision starts at the youth hockey level and goes right on through college hockey, with Penn State, on up to the NHL level. It takes special people like them to put other people in a position to succeed.”
That’s the same top to bottom development philosophy that makes Little Caesar’s one of the preeminent youth hockey organizations in the country.
Kris Draper looked around the Little Caesar’s locker room and through the tears and exhaustion that come with a tough loss in a championship game he saw something more. He saw a group of players who have grown up right before his eyes.
“A lot of those guys in the room have been together since they were 9 years old. It’s been fun to watch them go from snotty nosed little kids into real good young hockey players,” Draper said of the group that includes his son, Kienan.
And while the sting of coming so close to their ultimate goal will hurt for a while, Draper knows there will be more good days than bad as this group of players continue to cling the developmental ladder.
“The Little Caesars organization means a lot to me, obviously, being associated with the Red Wings,” Draper said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this group. There are some great young hockey players in that room and I’m looking forward to seeing where they end up as they develop.”