By @MichaelCaples –
PLYMOUTH – Wednesday night, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-17 Team won Game 2 of their USHL Eastern Conference Final series against the Youngstown Phantoms by a final score of 10-6.
“It’s certainly not your typical playoff game,” NTDP coach John Wroblewski quipped.
Certainly not, indeed. Multiple five-goal leads vanishing; goalies being pulled only to come back in; 24 percent of the shots on goal turning on the red light. Not normal, at all.
It shouldn’t be surprising, though. Nothing’s normal about this NTDP U17 Team.
At this point, everything’s a milestone for the Plymouth-based program. On March 15, they clinched their first USHL postseason appearance since 2011-12. On April 21, they won their first-ever USHL postseason game. On April 27, they won their first-ever USHL postseason series.
Wednesday night’s win was their first-ever victory in the conference finals then, too – obviously. This is uncharted territory for the NTDP, because, really, they’re not supposed to win (for the record, they lost Game 1 of the conference final 4-3 in OT). Especially not the Under-17 Team, which plays the majority of the program’s USHL schedule and represents the NTDP in the postseason (when they make it there). They’re all 2001 birth-year players competing as an under-aged group in the top junior league in the country.
The U17 Team roster is made up of players younger than every player that was on the ice for the Phantoms last night. Youngstown’s line-up featured four players that are 1997 birth-year players, and eight that are 1998 birth-years. That’s 12 players three or four years older – all with Division 1 college hockey commitments.
It’s all uncharted territory for Team USA.
“You find yourself on the bench having a little bit more fun than normal,” said Wroblewski, who, in fitting-fashion, was a member of the inaugural NTDP roster in 1997 as a player. “That’s in the early going, then when the game heats up it’s back to doing a little bit more yelling, try to get a little bit more urgency out of the players. It’s pretty cool to look back and see where the program has evolved from playing in it to being an intern to being an assistant to now being a head coach, this amazing building and what all these people have built, it’s pretty cool to be a part of and it’s surreal to experience that we’re having some success in the playoffs.
“You break it down and then you, well we’ve got some elite human beings, No. 1, and then these kids have talent and they compete, then you have high expectations for them. We’re going into these games expecting to compete, and when you do that, you end up in overtime and you end up in situations, probably not like this again, but you end up in tight games. It’s an unbelievable learning experience for these guys going forward in their young careers.”
Photos by Michael Caples/MiHockey
The NTDP wants their players to be battle-tested throughout their time in Plymouth, especially in their first season. That gets them ready for the big-time international tournaments and college games they take part in during Year 2 of the U.S. program.
Playing deep into the USHL playoffs against skilled, talented programs like Youngstown is taking that on-the-job-training to new heights.
“We’ve been through a lot of challenges this year, but this is a special group of guys,” said Owen Lindmark, a forward who recorded a hat trick in the 10-6 Game 2 win. “…I think we’ve been in pretty much every situation, so we’re prepared for what’s going to come. We just can’t let off the peddle, and we have to keep it up.”
The latest learning experience was what Lindmark mentioned at the backend of that quote. The NTDP raced out to a 4-0 lead in the first period of Game 2 and held 5-0 and 6-1 leads early in the second, only to watch the Phantoms chip away, and chip away, and chip away…until all of a sudden it was 7-6 just 1:45 into the third period. A group of 16 and 17-year-olds may collapse under the pressure; if the U17s lost, they would be heading to Youngstown for Games 3 and 4 on the brink of elimination.
“We just have keep going, keep grinding,” captain Marshall Warren said when asked what he was telling his teammates. “We have 21 great guys in the room, and we know we can win, so I said just keep going, we’ll get this done.”
Got it done, they did – with Warren scoring the goal that made it 8-6. In total, 12 NTDP players recorded points in the 16-goal outing. Warren’s two and Lindmark’s three were accompanied by goals from Erik Middendorf, Henry Thrun, Danny Weight, Patrick Moynihan and Matthew Boldy.
Lindmark admitted that there were plenty of emotional swings throughout the contest.
“There were a lot. It was really nerve-wrecking, but we just stuck to the game plan. Coach Wrobo has us on a great game plan, and we’re all very confident that if we stick to it, we can beat anybody.”
Cameron Rowe, meanwhile, took the brunt of the defensive lapses. As the lone regular U17 goalie available for duty (Spencer Knight was called up to the U18 Team for the IIHF U18 World Championship), he went the distance, making 29 saves in his fourth win of the postseason.
His coach expects him to be just fine, however.
“Cam Rowe will show up tomorrow with a smile on his face, ready to play and ready to practice,” Wroblewski said. “That’s the kind of kid he is. That’s the reason why we selected him. It’s very difficult to assess how talented a goalie is at the age of 15, but you can get an idea of their make-up, and we knew we had a special kid there. He continues to impress with his perseverance and ability to have one more save than the other guy.”
For Rowe and the rest of the U17s, they will be preparing for Games 3 and 4 in Youngstown. A split would result in a Game 5 back in Plymouth Tuesday night.
However, when he was asked if he was already thinking about Game 3, Warren made a comment that was the perfect reminder of where the U17s are at in life.
“Got school tomorrow, got to get ready for that,” the U17 Team captain said with a smile.
School first, hockey later.