Pens Elite U16 team gains big-time experience

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

A national championship was the goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Midget Minor squad.

That didn't happen, but the team's players came away from the USA Hockey Tier I Under-16 National Championships at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center with something valuable nonetheless — big-time experience.

“There's no doubt. When you go through these kinds of stressful situations as a player, and a lot of these young kids have not been under these kinds of bright lights before, that will only help them as their careers go on,” Pens Elite coach Jeff Potter said.

“The most important thing is, we're here not to win, but to develop the players and help them move on. We've had a lot of response from college and junior scouts interested in our players and that's why we're really here.”

The Penguins Elite opened the tournament with a 4-2 loss to the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Junior Knights. The Junior Knights scored three goals in the opening period before the Pens Elite got on the scoreboard in the second period. Jake Coleman's goal trimmed Pittsburgh's deficit to 3-1 early in the second before Wilkes-Barre/Scranton scored again.

Coleman added another goal late in the period, but the Pens Elite squad could not overcome the deficit.

“Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a very talented team,” Potter said. “They won the national championship at the Bantam Major level last year. A lot of those guys are on this team; they're very good.”

Pittsburgh rebounded in its second game to post a 5-3 win over the Cleveland Barons. Randy Unger's goal gave the Pens Elite a 1-0 lead after the first. Pittsburgh scored twice in a 1:20 span early in the second. Coleman scored 3:11 into the period and Dalton Hunter found the back of the net off a Bryan Sienerth assist for a 3-0 edge.

However, the Barons responded with three goals in a 4:53 span to tie the game late in the second period.

The Pens Elite struck back with Seinerth's goal off Luke Bafia and Michael Facchiano assists late in the period to post a 4-3 lead. Brian Dee added a goal early in the third on Chris Johnson and Unger assists.

“We got tripped up in the middle of the game a little bit,” Potter said. “But, we got the wheels back on as the game went on and it was a 5-3 win, so we were happy with that.”

Pittsburgh dropped a 4-2 decision to powerhouse Detroit Honeybaked to wrap up pool play. Honeybaked scored two early goals, but Joe Zottola tallied with 3:59 left in the period to cut the deficit to 2-1. Hunter had the assist. But Detroit scored 56 seconds later to post a 3-1 lead.

Honeybaked scored 3:34 into the third for a 4-1 lead. Zottola notched his second goal of the game with 2:19 remaining. Hunter and Sienerth each had assists.

“They are very good. To be honest, I thought it was probably the best game we played all weekend. We lost 4-2, but shots were dead even and two of their goals went off of our guys and into the net; we hit a couple posts,” Potter said. “I thought, without a doubt, they are one of the best teams in the country and, if the puck bounced the other way, we might've won that game. It was our best effort, for sure.”

The Pens Elite advanced to the quarterfinals, but dropped a 6-1 decision to the Connecticut Wolfpack. Connecticut held a 3-0 lead early in the second period before Sienerth trimmed Pittsburgh's deficit to 3-1 with 13:20 to go off a Zottola assist. The Wolfpack, who finished second in the tournament, responded with another goal to close the period with a 4-1 edge. They added two more in the third for the 6-1 victory.

“They are very talented. They beat some people up here this week,” Potter said. “I think they were one of the teams that really had a chance to win the whole thing.”

Despite the loss, Potter was happy with the way his team competed.

“We played against a lot of good teams all year and certainly very good teams in this tournament,” he said. “Everyone else except us had to win their way here, so they had to beat good people to get here. When that's the case, you're going to be playing against really good people.”

The Pens Elite (48-20-4) squad is no stranger to top-flight competition.

“We played in the Little Caesars tournament in Detroit in September and lost to Honeybaked, 3-2, in the finals. So, we ended up second place in that tournament with about 50 teams in it,” Potter said. “We went to the Beantown Classic in Boston in October with 40-some teams in that and also went to the final and lost by a goal. We made the final four in our league and finished in third place. Our U18 team won the league, and we were the only organization in the whole league to have both midget-aged teams make the final four, so that's good.”

Potter expects some turnover, but hopes the younger players step up next season.

“We have a good number of '96 birth year players, but some of our '97s can come back and the '98 team, which had a good showing here, will move into my team next year,” he said. “That's the way it goes, keep moving them on up. You have to start over every fall.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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