In the most pressure-packed game of the season, Academy U18 coach Matt Plante walked into the locker room after the second period of Saturday night's USA Hockey Nationals quarterfinal game against Pittsburgh Pens Elite as calm as he's been all season.
“I went in there after we tied the game up and that's the most calm I've been,” Plante said. “I was a nervous wreck going into the game, but when the game started I was calm. The heart and passion those kids displayed was incredible. I knew these kids were going to pull through because they are so resilient and the buy in from them is so high – it's incredible.”
After falling behind by a pair of goals thanks to a hat trick from Dartmouth-bound forward Jackson Morehouse, the Saints scored the game's final five goals to secure a spot in Sunday afternoon's national semifinals. Mount St. Charles junior Zach Aben netted the game-tying and go-ahead goals, while the Saints top-end talent – Owen McLaughlin, Nate Benoit and Jayden Sison – also scored goals in a 6-3 come-from-behind victory in suburban St. Louis.
“I'm so proud of these guys because they battled back and played the final 25-30 minutes of hockey the way we played on the final day of regionals,” Plante said. “We did a great job advancing the puck and defensively we had good stick presence. We bottled up the middle of the ice and kept them from getting second and third chances against [goalie Tommy Heaney].”
The Saints, who bounced back from a 3-2 pool-play defeat on Friday to Northeast Pack and Beast Series rival North Jersey, play Beast Series rival Rochester (N.Y.) Coalition in the semifinals this afternoon at 2:45 p.m. at the Centene Community Ice Center. The two teams were scheduled to meet in late 2020 in Rochester, but the pandemic scuppered that plan.
ROCO smashed Culver Academy, 8-1, in the quarterfinals behind four points apiece from Samuel Deckhut and Ryan Walsh. Nicolas Rexine was the only Coalition player with two goals. While the players are different, Plante coached the Saints to a victory over the Coalition during last season's Beast Series.
“They're going to be a high-powered offense that is essentially a prep all-star team, so it's going to be tough,” Plante said. “We're going to have to do what we did in our own end the last 30 minutes of this game. We're going to have to out-structure them. We have to slow them down and be heavy. We have to play that warrior mentality hockey and focus on the details.”
The Saints, who couldn't get out of their own way in a 4-0 loss to Pens Elite during the regular season, grabbed the lead in the second period when McLaughlin, a Penn State commit, opened the scoring after good work from Sixten Jennersjo. But then the Saints started to play the type of hockey that got them in trouble against the Avs.
Morehouse took advantage of a defensive break down to net a short-handed goal and then he scored a power-play goal after good work from Austin Oravetz. Oravetz assisted on Morehouse's hat-trick goal to put Pens Elite up 3-1 midway through the period.
“He was in the right spot a few times and did a good job finishing his chances,” Plante said. “The puck found him and he was opportunistic, so that's a credit to him.”
Sison, a Princeton commit, scored a power-play goal to cut the deficit in half and then Aben tied the game when he went around the net and took a tight-angle shot that snuck into the net. Defenseman Logan Dapprich received an assist on the play.
Aben, who is coming back to Mount next year, scored the game-winning goal early in the third period after good work from linemates Ryan O'Connell and Josh Karnish.
“That's been Zach all season and it's unfortunate with COVID that people haven't been able to see him because he's done this for us all year,” Plante said. He's an absolute savage and he works so hard that he can't talk when he gets to the bench. He can rip the puck and he's scored great goals from ridiculous angles. He's got good habits and good details. He's been so effective.”
Karnish, who scored a great individual goal earlier in the tournament, scored another superb solo goal later in the period to double the Saints' lead.
“Josh has stepped up his focus and his consistency,” Plante said. “Josh has gotten interest from coaches at the next level and when people come and see them, they like them. He's playing more in straight lines and he's understanding that he's one of the best skaters on the team and he's being more consistent now.”
Benoit, a North Dakota commit, scored his first goal of the tournament with an empty-net effort to finish off the victory.
The winner of today's semifinal will play in Monday morning's national championship game against either the Avalanche or No. 1 Shattuck St. Mary's.
The U18 team is the only Woonsocket squad left in any Tier-I tournament after the U14 team suffered a 3-2 quarterfinal loss to the L.A. Jr. Kings in suburban Dallas. Jackson DeLeo scored a first-period goal to tie the game and then he scored again late in the third period to make it a one-goal game, but that was as close as the Saints got. James Hagens, Tyler Wood and Luke Gallo had assists in the loss.
Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello