As playoff hockey goes, it had just about everything.
High-energy, end-to-end action, big saves, a late-game comeback, three periods of overtime – including a penalty shot, a shootout, then a joyful celebration for one team, heartbreak for the other after more than 55 minutes of play.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Wolves U11 rep team, a force all season but second to the Thorold Blackhawks in the standings, beat Thorold 3-2 Tuesday night at Centennial Arena to capture the Niagara District Hockey League championship.
With a raucous crowd packing the bleachers, cheering on their respective teams, NOTL was down 1-0 to start the third period and then 2-0 when Thorold notched another.
“Before the third period started, I told the team if they won that period, they’d win the game. Well, they won it but then we went to overtime,” head coach Joe Pagnotta said afterward.
Charlie Rowaan narrowed the gap with NOTL’s first goal and then Eil Perng tied it up late in the third to force OT.
One 10-minute frame settled nothing – though there was plenty of drama.
NOTL goalie Mason Nichols stopped a penalty shot after a teammate handled the puck in the crease. The penalty shot save was a precursor of what was to come in the shootout.
After five minutes of 4-on-4 hockey and five more with three skaters a side, the game went to a three-player shootout.
NOTL’s Luke Simpson, who led the league in points this year, was the game’s hero, as he was the only shooter to find the net.
After Nichols stopped Thorold’s final attempt, the arena erupted, with NOTL players, coaches, parents and fans embracing and cheering.
“Both goalies played phenomenally,” Pagnotta said. And his team never gave up.
Winning the Niagara District championship is just the latest accomplishment for this NOTL squad.
They ousted Thorold previously to qualify for the prestigious Ontario Minor Hockey Association championships on Easter Weekend in Barrie, then had to play the Blackhawks again this week in a winner-take-all league final.
Pagnotta was impressed how is team dealt with the adversity they faced against a tough opponent, especially since they’re next going up against seven of the top teams in their age group from across Ontario.
After the big win, it was time to soak it all in.
“They were on cloud nine last night,” said Pagnotta.
“It was it was fun to see, to be part of and I reminded them it’s something that they’ll remember the rest of their lives regardless of our outcome going forward. It’s something they’ll talk about forever.”
Now, with more than a week until their next scheduled game (first up in Barrie is the Mount Brydges Cougars on Good Friday morning), Pagnotta is hoping to arrange an exhibition game or maybe some practices.
“Rest is not a bad thing. We don’t want to overwhelm them. We’ve played a lot of hockey this season. But we don’t have to go every day,” he said.
The Wolves haven’t lost a game in the playoffs, dating back to mid-February, so the team is looking forward to riding that eight-game streak into the OMHA tournament.
No matter what happens in Barrie, they have a lifetime of memories from Tuesday night’s victory.