LITTLETON, Colo. — A slowly simmering start evolved into a rolling boil Monday morning at the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U National Championships at Edge Ice Arena, as the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights (NV) ultimately came away with a 2-1 shootout victory over Valley Thunder (AK) in the 2A championship game.
The Vegas Jr. Golden Knights struck first, when a rebound off a long shot was put home by Rodrick Reynolds III with 6:25 to go in the second period.
It took most of the remaining time in regulation for the Valley Thunder to equalize, but Tavian Mukaabya was able to convert on a top-shelf shot with 4:09 to go in regulation.
By the time the overtime period came and went, and the shootout went five skaters deep, it was Vegas goalie Vincent Vitale who metaphorically blew the roof off the arena.
After turning away 27 shots in regulation and overtime, Vitale made three consecutive saves during the shootout to kick off celebrations for the Golden Knights following the 2-1 victory.
“We played hard the whole tournament and teams kept getting better and better,” Vitale said. “Overtime, we were all pretty tired but, you know, we won and I couldn’t be happier.”
Although the first period was scoreless, each team had reason for optimism. Vegas possessed more in its attacking third, including a nearly three-minute stretch early in proceedings. Valley had more shots, including a wrister with 8:45 left in the frame that Vitale had to go full-stretch to push the puck wide.
Less than a minute later, the Knights had a long-and-low shot from the blue line that slipped through a maze of skates and the goalie, clanking off the left post as it scuttled away from the frame.
It was another blue line chance that eventually broke the scoreless tie with 6:25 to go in the second. Liam Butsavich fired a shot from deep in the zone and the puck went tumbling over the Valley goalie. Reynolds III got his stick into the scramble and stuffed the puck home.
It was arguably the second-best chance of the period, with the largest opportunity coming a few minutes earlier when Vitale left the crease for a clear attempt. When the clear clipped a Valley player’s stick and landed at the skates of another opponent, the ensuing ricocheted of Vitale’s mask as he stood at least 15 feet from the crease and tumbled over the frame, leading to a scrum behind the cage.
The only mark on Vitale’s stat sheet was the late equalizer, which Mukaabya tucked into the top-left corner after the puck clipped the goalie’s shoulder. Immediately afterwards, several Golden Knights skaters picked up their netminder with words of encouragement and Vitale anchored the team through the remaining regulation, overtime period and shootout.
“His mental toughness is one of the reasons he has a letter on his chest,” Golden Knights coach Dustin Coldren said, referencing Vitale’s assistant captain patch. “He’s just an unbelievable player and great, great kid. He’s incredibly tough and he was probably our best player of the whole tournament.”
There was extra pressure on Vitale’s shoulders, too, as the backup goalie didn’t travel with the team. Per USA Hockey rules, the Golden Knights needed a backup goalie, which local club Littleton Hawks provided in Henry Snow. After the game, Vegas chanted the name of their emergency backup.
“This is exactly what we’ve worked all season for,” Coldren said. “It probably wasn’t our best game and Alaska gave us everything we could handle. A little bittersweet that it had to come down to a shootout but I’m just so proud of the boys.”