Tampa Bay, FL – The Washington Little Capitals 18u team won the USA Hockey Southeast District Tournament on Sunday, beating TPH Thunder in an overtime thriller. With the victory, the team will represent the Southeast in the National Tournament next month.
The final game was a rematch from Game 1 of round-robin play, when the Little Caps beat the Thunder by a score of 4-1. Connor Leslie led the team, saving 30 of 31 shots, and Max Romeo contributed 2 goals; a rebound from a powerful Jake Smith rush and an empty net goal late to seal the win. Two other goals were of the highlight reel variety—a behind-the-back pass from Zack Murray to Jake Smith and an end-to-end rush from Paolo Meany for the game winner.
“We showed some nerves in the first half of game one,” said Hockey Director and Head Coach Matt Thomas. “It really set the tone for the rest of the weekend.”
The Little Caps also lost one of their defensemen to injury in this contest, leaving the team with only four healthy defensemen for the next three and a half games. With Ryan Lenaghan out of the lineup, Max Thiessen, Victor Hugo, Malik Lansdown, and Paolo Meany would go on to share all the defensive minutes for the remainder of the tournament. “We’re extremely lucky to have four defensemen capable of playing that kind of workload,” said Thomas. “They each played every other shift for almost four games in less than four days. It was unbelievable.”
In game 2, the Little Caps beat the Florida Alliance by a score of 9-2. The first period set the tone for the day, as the team went into the first intermission leading 4-0 and not surrendering a scoring chance against. The Little Caps would cruise from there, with Gavin Ross saving 17 of 19 shots against. Leading the way offensively were Zack Murray and John Billingsley each with two goals and two assists, Paolo Meany and Austin Pick with 4 assists each, and Christian Tschampel with two goals of his own. In all, ten different players had points in the game.
“Game two was a comprehensive win,” noted Assistant Coach Derek Sanborn. “Everyone contributed in a dominant possession game, a lot of guys got some momentum scoring some points, and we locked ourselves into the finals. The boys really rose to the challenge.”
Game 3 was a bit of a ‘rivalry match’, with the Little Caps beating Team Maryland by a score of 3-2 in overtime. Though the game had no bearing on standings, with the Little Caps locked into the finals and Team Maryland eliminated, the teams put on a great performance for a raucous crowd. Zack Murray opened the scoring and Jake Smith followed with both the game-tying and game-winning goals. Down by a goal and shorthanded in the waning minutes of the third period, Christian Tschampel sprung Smith for a slick breakaway finish. In overtime, Smith collected a pass from Romeo in a 2-on-1 rush and sent a laser past the sprawling goaltender. At the other end of the rink, Connor Leslie and Gavin Ross each had a hand in the winning effort, stopping 21 of 23 shots combined.
“The boys showed us another level of character and determination in this game,” said Thomas. “We knew we were in the finals the next day, but the boys just refused to lose. It was really remarkable—and a great preview of the kind of day we had in store on Sunday.”
In the Championship contest, TPH struck early in the first period with their only goal of the day. In the second period, the Little Caps would respond with a Declan Martin rocket. The goal was assisted by Christian Tschampel after drawing attention with some shifty moves off the rush and providing a great pass to his linemate.
The teams would remain scoreless with some staunch stretches from both teams. Connor Leslie saved his best performance of the weekend for the final contest, stopping 33 of 34. Though both teams had power play opportunities throughout the 3rd period, it would take more than 15:00 of the first overtime to find a winner.
After a Thunder boarding penalty left Zack Murray with a dented facemask and bloodied nose, the Little Caps went to work on the powerplay. Center Thomas Krisztinicz won the offensive zone draw cleanly to Paolo Meany who slid the puck to his defense partner Max Thiessen. As he faked a shot and drew attention from the Thunder penalty kill, Thiessen adeptly sent a return pass to Meany, who delivered a heavy snapshot towards the net. The shot redirected over a helpless TPH goaltender and the celebration was on.
“I don’t even think I yelled, I was just so excited my voice wouldn’t work,” said Meany when asked about his reaction. “I had been shooting well all day, it was nice to finally get one.”
With the win, the Little Caps concluded a dominant season against fellow Southeast opponents. In all, the team went 11-0 against national-bound clubs in the region during regular season and playoff competition.
“That’s quite a testament to the character and resolve of this group,” said Thomas. “We’ve repeatedly shown we can find a way to win even in the most severe circumstances, and we found a way to play our best hockey at the right time. I’m really proud of these guys.”
The win also marks a third consecutive National Championship appearance for 2001 Little Caps players Ryan Lenaghan, Max Thiessen, Victor Hugo, and Connor Leslie.
The USA Hockey National Championship runs from April 3-8 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.