ASTON, Pa. — The Duck Dynasty has ended.
For the first time in a decade, the Delaware Jr. Blue Hens will be sending a team to the USA Hockey National Championships, earning a berth after upending their crosstown rivals — the Delaware Ducks — in the final game of a best-of-three qualifying series between their respective 18U AA teams.
… and they did it in overtime, no less.
Seventy-one seconds into overtime in Sunday’s (March 6) deciding third game, at IceWorks, in Aston, Pa., Matt Bellopede sealed a 3-2 victory for the Jr. Blue Hens — and a National Championship berth — with a 12-foot wrist shot through the legs of Ducks goalie Kadin Matotek. The junior from the Salesianum School muscled through defensive traffic at the top of the left circle after fielding a breakout pass through the neutral zone from Brody Ford, who contributed the game-tying goal in addition to his overtime assist.
“The goal obviously was Matt showing what he can do, but it was his determination that stood out to me,” said coach Sean Cannon. “All game long, he had multiple chances, but he couldn’t bury one. But he stayed the course, kept going, and found the back of the net.”
Leading up to their crowning moment, however, the tenacious and well-conditioned Hens overcame heaps of adversity, erasing a two-goal lead in the final 20 minutes of regulation. Despite outdrawing, outshooting and outmanning the Ducks through the first 31 minutes, the Hens were forced to battle back from a 2-0 deficit courtesy goals from Ducks forward Nick Lawson — his second of the series — and defenceman Jordan Krawczyk.
And battle they did.
With Bryan Janocha ruled off for hooking with 2:23 left in the second period, the Hens’ power play unit crashed the Ducks’ net with a flurry of shots. After Matotek denied Bellopede and subsequently Jacob Fabian, Nick DelPizzo halved the Ducks’ lead at 15:09 with a rebound put-back at the edge of the crease. The Blue Hens struck again on the power play 3:31 into the third period, when Brody Ford unleashed a wrist shot from centre point to tie the game. In the penultimate minute of regulation, the Blue Hens generated two further scoring chances — both thwarted by Matotek — and they likewise minimised the Ducks’ attacking opportunities until the final minute of regulation, creating traffic in the neutral zone and standing up the Ducks’ strongest forces at the blue line. The Ducks worked into Blue Hen territory in the final 10 seconds, and while both Lawson and Krawczyk mustered close-range shots on goal, Hens goalie Justin Mackley saved them both and forced the deciding game to overtime.
“Justin did what a goalie needs to do and gave his team a chance to win,” Cannon continued. “He battled through adversity, but he held in and gave us an opportunity to come out the other side.”
It didn’t take long thereafter for the Hens to clinch victory, only needing 1:11 of overtime to upend the Ducks.
“This wasn’t the ultimate goal,” said Cannon, stressing his emphasis on long-term player development over short-term results. “The ultimate goal was to develop all the players and give them an opportunity to earn a trip to Nationals. For me, as a coach, there’s nothing better than to see guys put in the time and work, and to buy in and earn success. As for the organization, my main goal is to have younger Blue Hens strive to achieve the same success as this team did this year.”
While the Jr. Blue Hens basked in the thrill of victory, the Ducks’ range of emotion in defeat ran the gamut from disappointment to sheer rage. Nonetheless, the well-contested series is sure to set the stage for further showdowns between the crosstown adversaries.
“You can’t ask for a better series,” said Ducks assistant coach Jeremy Records. “Any game could have been won by either team, and I feel like all the players out there deserve all the credit for playing a great series.”
Jacob Fabian contributed two assists for the Jr. Blue Hens in Game 3, while Mackley saved 28 of 30 shots. Matotek saved 35 of 38 shots faced in defeat.
“Every goalie deserves a chance to play in a district game,” Records said of Matotek, who came in Sunday to spell Nick Giuliano, the Ducks’ goalie through the first two games. “He was feeling a little under the weather for the second game, so we gave him the opportunity to win it for us in the third, and he gave us every chance.”
The Tier II 18U USA Hockey National Championship is scheduled for March 31-April 4, 2022, in Irvine, Calif.
In earlier series action:
Game 1 (Friday, March 4) • Ducks 2, Jr. Blue Hens 1
The Ducks opened the series with a 2-1 win over the Jr. Blue Hens. After a scoreless first period, Lawson and Will Betterly established the Ducks’ advantage with a pair of second-period goals. Bellopede scored the Blue Hens’ lone goal off a give-and-go with DelPizzo in the final 6:02, and a further late attack was muted by Ducks goalie Nick Giuliano, who recorded 32 saves in victory.
Game 2 (Saturday, March 5) • Jr. Blue Hens 5, Ducks 2
After trading first-period goals with the Ducks, the Jr. Blue Hens edged away steadily in the final 22 minutes. Two second-period goals from defenceman Caleb El-Attar pushed the Hens to a 3-1 lead at the intermission, and a further pair from Jacob Fabian forced Sunday’s deciding Game 3. Jonathan Catterton backstopped the Hens with a 24-save effort.