Pittsburgh, PA - The 18U Tier I AAA Esmark Stars were in Maryland Heights, MO, this past week to participate in the 2021 Chipotle-USA Hockey Tier I U18 National Championship Tournament.
The 16-team invitational tournament featured District Champions for 11 of USA Hockey's 12 Districts (the Massachusetts District opted out of holding a District Championship this season due to Covid-19, and five "At-Large" teams, as selected by USA Hockey based on their overall season performance.
The Pittsburgh-based Esmark Stars received one of the five "At-Large" Bids, as did fellow Mid-American Midget Major Clubs Culver Military Academy and the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, to participate in the 16-team invitational tournament to crown a National Champion for amateur hockey in the Tier I AAA U18 Division.
The Stars, who were ranked #12 in the nation entering the tournament, drew a tough draw in the Liberty Division, including Mount St. Charles (playing as the Rhode Island Saints), ranked #4, North Jersey Avalanche, ranked #5, and the Nashville Jr. Predators, ranked #9.
The Stars, who were seeded third in the bracket by USA Hockey, opened play, and the tournament, on Wednesday, April 28, dropping a 5-1 decision to Mount St. Charles Academy (Rhode Island Saints) at the Ice Zone Rink in Hazelwood, MO. Ryder Brophy scored the lone Stars goal, with assists to Ed Pazo and Egor Busygin. Connor Strobel suffered the loss in goal as Mount St. Charles scored three power-play goals on eight chances, while Esmark was 0 for 5 withe man-advantage.
The Stars returned to the ice on Thursday, April 29 in a must-win situation to be able to advance out of round-robin play, but ran into a buzz saw and dropped a 9-2 decision to the New Jersey Avalanche at the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, MO. Ryder Brophy cut a 4-0 deficit by one with a power play goal late in the second period, with assists to Ed Pazo and Michael Felsing, but the Avalanche would find the back of the net before the second period horn to extend their lead back to four. The Avs would turn the game into a rout with four third period goals as a demoralized Stars team saw their chance to advance to the quarter-finals come to an end. Yahor Ramanau would score a power play goal in the third period, with Shane Miller and Adis Ultanbekov getting assists. Nathan Dickey suffered the loss in goal. The Stars were 2 for 3 on the power play while North Jersey was 1 for 6 with the man-advantage.
Esmark closed out their 2021 USA Hockey Nationals appearance with a 8-5 win over the Nashville Predators on Friday, April 30, back at the Ice Zone Rink in Hazelwood. After quickly falling behind 2-0, the Stars went to work and scored four goals in the first period to grab a 4-2 lead. The Stars scored an apparent goal early in the second period, but the gaol was disallowed by the on-ice officials and Nashville quickly capitalized with a goal of their own to cut the lead to 4-3. Midway through the second, Nashville would tally the equalizer and tie the game 4-4. But the Stars would answer with a late second period goal and take a 5-4 lead to the locker room after two periods. The Stars put the pedal down and would rattle off three straight goals in the third period to take an 8-4 lead. Nashville would get a late goal to cut the final deficit to 8-5.
Adis Ultanbekov (2G, 1A) would lead the offense with a pair of goals, one on the power play and one shorthanded, and an assist. Michael Felsing (1G, 2A), Zach Stoner (1G, 1A), Yahor Ramanau, Ethan Zupanc, Regan Kallis, and Ed Pazo also scored goals. Cole Mitchell (3A), Ryder Brophy (3A), Liam Varmecky (2A), Justin Mettrick, John Camp and Keith Smilowitz all earned assists. And Connor Strobel picked up the win in goal for the Stars.
Ultanbekov, Stoner, Felsing and Pazo all scored power play goals as the Stars went 4 for 7 on the power play. And Ultanbekov and Kallis each recorded shorthanded goals, as the Stars held Nashville to an 0-for-5 with the man-advantage.
Both Mount St Charles (Rhode Island) and North Jersey advanced from the Liberty bracket to the quarterfinals. Mount St. Charles (Rhode Island) would win their quarter-final game and advance to the National semi-finals before falling to eventual National Champion Rochester Coalition. North Jersey would win both their quarter-final and semi-final games, before falling to Rochester in the Championship game.
The (1-2-0-0) showing at the USA Hockey National Tournament wrapped up the Stars 2021-22 season with an overall record of (44-20-7-0).
"The boys played hard," said head coach Dave Kosick. "We knew we had a very tough draw but felt good going into the tournament."
"Our rust showed in game one against Mount St. Charles, and we got ourselves into to deep of a hole to get out of," Kosick said.
"And the game with North Jersey was a win or else proposition, he continued. "We were competitive with the Avalanche and had cut their lead late in the second period, but we gave up a back breaker goal late in the period ... and the third period the guys knew their Nationals dream was over and it showed."
"But rather than quit, we pulled ourselves back up by the boot straps and completed the journey with a good win to end the season."
This was the third straight season that the 18U AAA Esmark Stars AAA team had earned an automatic spot, or was named to the field, for USA Hockey's 18U Tier I National Championships.
Esmark claimed the Mid-American 18U Tier I title the past two seasons, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, and the automatic spot in the National Championships as Mid-Am District Champions, and was selected as an "At-Large" team for this year's event.
Unfortunately, last season's National Championship was cancelled due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.