by Matt Gajtka
NORTHFORD, Conn. — No doubt about it: The NE Pack playoffs kicked things up a notch for the four BK Selects boys teams.
And, with the New York state tournament looming next month, that step-up in intensity arrived at just the right time.
“They’re meaningful games,” said 15O head coach Shayne Stockton. “You feel it on the ice as a player and you feel it on the bench as a coach. From here on out, they’re playoff games.”
At the Northford Ice Pavilion last weekend, the season-long NE Pack titles in four age groups — 14U, 15O, 16U and 18U — were up for grabs . Five teams competed for the championships in the two older divisions, with Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, RI Saint M’s, New Jersey Rockets and host Long Island Gulls joining BK Selects in those. Six teams squared off in the two younger divisions, with the Mid Fairfield Jr. Rangers included in those brackets.
While none of the BK Selects teams took home a banner, the 16Us and 14Us both reached their respective championship games, with the 15Os falling in the semis and the 18Us losing in overtime in a play-in game.
“I really liked how everyone bought in to what the coaches were telling us to do.” said 16U forward Nate Delladonna (Brewerton, N.Y.). “Obviously we didn’t have the outcome we wanted in the end, but it was still great to see everyone working hard and fighting for each other.”
The 16Us, ranked fourth in the nation per MyHockeyRankings and boasting a 38-15-3 record, were just a couple of shots away from downing the No. 3-ranked New Jersey Rockets in the title game, falling 5-4 in a shootout. That came on the heels of a 4-3 overtime triumph over the second-ranked Long Island Gulls in the semifinal round.
The win over Long Island was revenge for a 3-1 defeat to the Gulls in round-robin play the day before. In the semi, Geno Carcone (Woodstock, Ga.) notched the game-winning OT goal, following up Delladonna’s late equalizer.
16U head coach Dan Collins lamented that his squad conceded a couple of goals late in periods in the title tilt against New Jersey, while also commending his players for their progress over the course of the season.
“Couple things didn’t go our way, but we learn a lot from it,” Collins said. “We’ve come such a long way, though. Really proud of the growth that they’ve shown, and the buy-in. We believe we can play with anybody.
“Maybe that experience was what we needed.”
The 14Us (53-16-3, No. 8 in MyHockeyRankings) followed a similar trajectory at the NE Pack playoffs, edging the host Gulls, 3-2, in a semifinal showdown before dropping a 7-2 decision to the fourth-ranked RI Saint M’s in the championship.
14U head coach Greg Collins tipped his cap to the level of competition, which capped a six-event NE Pack schedule over the course of the past five months.
This weeks LiveBarn Top 5 features goals from the 14U @nepackhockey Tournament! Check them out! pic.twitter.com/wgPtwV4Egv
— LiveBarn (@LiveBarn) February 15, 2023
“Every game in the NE Pack is a grind,” Collins said. “That’s what’s great about the league. As long as we play the game the right way, we have success. When you get outside that, you get into trouble against top programs, like (RI Saint M’s).
“Good to go through that now. Credit to the league.”
14U forward Luca Cannata (Commack, N.Y.) said the tempo of games at this level was already challenging, but that amped up another tick or two for the NE Pack playoffs.
“The intensity of every game was very high,” Cannata said. “Everyone was battling and competing all over the ice. As the pace picks up, the games get harder, but more fun to play in. Every thing you do has to be faster and stronger while thinking at 100 miles an hour.”
Cannata, who played last season for the Long Island Gulls program, said he has some extra motivation to fight for a state title after the winter break. His dad was a successful high school wrestler who was denied a chance to compete for a New York state championship when his opponent had to drop out due to injury.
Considering their No. 8 ranking, there’s a good chance the 14Us could get an at-large bid to USA Hockey Nationals even if they don’t win the state, but of course the most direct path to the national tournament is to reign over New York.
“I’d like to see everyone firing on all cylinders and win the state tournament to punch our ticket to Nationals,” Cannata said.
The fourth-ranked 15O team (47-12-7) was relieved to have more players available for the NE Pack playoffs than on recent weekends; at one point, the squad was rotating through just four healthy defensemen.
Now, after collecting a pair of shutout wins last weekend, the hope is that there’s more left in the fuel tank for the gauntlet of March, with those reinforcements firmly in place.
“We were skating and working,” head coach Stockton said of the NE Pack playoffs performance. “Moving the puck well. Getting to the inside of the ice. We’ve been preaching a lot of those concepts over the past two weeks.”
Head coach David Arduin of the 18Us had a different takeaway after his squad went 1-2 in Connecticut, a result highlighted by a 2-1 round-robin win over No. 5-ranked and eventual NE Pack champ Pittsburgh Penguins Elite.
“We finally won a game without playing our best,” Arduin noted. “So many times (this season) we’ve felt we played good enough to win, so it was nice to see some of the intangibles and habits get us through. It’s about proving that we have the ability to beat anybody that we play.”
Arduin singled out forward Owen King (Webster, N.Y. / Providence College) for his “super-consistent” performance since the new year, a welcomed development at the end of what he called an inconsistent season for the 13th-ranked 18Us (32-25-4).
“Our ranking isn’t what we would want it to be,” Arduin said. “Honestly, we’re really looking forward to the (winter) break because we think the kids need it.”
The 18Us will have to outdo the Buffalo Regals, Buffalo Jr. Sabres, the Gulls and the Nichols School to win the state tournament next month and advance to Nationals for a second-straight season.
Arduin believes getting after it all season in the NE Pack will only help their chances in pulling off that feat.
“This is one of the best, if not the best midget league in the country,” he said. “I think it says a lot that four different programs won championships last weekend. The competition is great and it’s evenly matched.”
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