Pens Elite U14 team hopes momentum carries on to next season
Momentum happened at the right time for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Bantam Major team.
The squad started to find consistency toward the end of the season.
It showed early in the USA Hockey Tier I Under-14 National Championships at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center.
The Pens Elite squad rolled to two consecutive wins to open the tournament in their own backyard. The team beat New Jersey Devils Youth, 3-2, on the tournament's first day. The Pens Elite followed that with a 3-1 victory over the Indiana Junior Ice.
“We struggled early in the year. In the last six weeks, we started to play better and more intense and started to buy into the system we've been trying to put in for months. We got some momentum,” Pens Elite coach Jim Lilja said. “I thought the boys competed and battled hard. They worked tremendously, so those were two really good wins for us.”
Against the Devils Youth, the Pens Elite scored twice in the first period on goals from Chris Conway and Jake Tepe. Brendan Walkom and Brandon Eisel added assists. New Jersey battled back to tie the score 2-2 in the second, but Connor Ford's goal in the third lifted the Pens Elite to the win. Tepe added an assist.
The Pens Elite rallied to beat Indiana, too. Billy Harris gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 edge in the first, but the Junior Ice tied it early in the second. Trey Kirksey and Tepe followed with goals to give the team a 3-1 lead in the period, and it held on for the win. Kirksey and Beau Heakins added assists.
In the Pens Elite's third game of pool play, powerhouse Detroit Honeybaked, which went on to win the national championship, posted a 6-1 win. Marc Anthony scored Pittsburgh's lone goal off a Harris helper.
“Honeybaked is clearly at the top of the mountain,” Lilja said. “That team is loaded. They are well coached. They are the best-skilled players in the country.”
Pittsburgh advanced to the quarterfinals, but dropped a 4-0 decision to the East Coast Wizards, who are coached by former NHL and Penguins player Shawn McEachern.
“That was a really good hockey team. They are well coached, and they have great speed,” Lilja said. “Obviously, they moved the puck really well. We had our hands full, but we had our chances. We just didn't capitalize on the chances we had. We fought hard, so I am proud of the boys.”
Overall, the Pens Elite squad finished with a 31-24-12 record. They went 16-7-5 in Tier-1 Elite Hockey League action and captured the Ohio Division.
“We definitely, as a team, got better throughout the year. The players really started to develop their skills. We improved a lot,” Lilja said. “We worked hard and we were playing against top teams in the country. It was great. Throughout the year, we played in some good tournaments and we had some great games, but struggled in some, too. This is was what we worked for all year — to be ready for this opportunity.
“For this team to play at nationals, it's the chance of a lifetime. You're competing against the top 10 or 12 teams in the country. It's an honor and privilege to be there. We didn't just want to show up. We wanted to compete and earn our right to be there, and I think we did.”
Lilja believes the experience will pay off for the players.
“I think they will build off the momentum that they started to gain here. I think it'll help them going into tryouts because they don't get much of a break,” he said. “They're going to be moving up to U-16, so there are two birth years they are going to be competing against. It's a challenge, but I think they know what they need to do, and I think they'll be fine.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.