#35 Alec Lindberg
The 2018-19 USPHL Premier champion has been crowned, and they look an awful lot like the 2017-18 squad. In fact, there were several Hampton Roads Whalers who repeated as USPHL Premier champions in Tuesday’s championship game at Merrimack College.
The Whalers defeated the first-year Metro Jets, who had won the 2017-18 championship in their former league, the NA3HL. This was the World Series of sorts between the last two champions from two Tier-3 teams, and the reigning USPHL champs won it again.
“We just brought it every game. We knew we had the capability to do it,” said Matt Hanchon, who scored two goals in this game and 13 total in the Premier postseason. That earned him Playoff MVP honors. “I love all these guys like brothers. I don’t really have a lot of words for it, but it’s so special to me and I’ll cherish this for a long time.”
The Whalers were the first team to clinch a semifinal berth, doing so on Saturday evening, leaving them able to rest some of their top players for Sunday’s third round robin game. Both the Whalers and the Jets earned decisive victories in Monday’s semifinal games to arrive at the championship game.
“I think it was something that needed to happen [to qualify Saturday] and we made it happen as a family and I couldn‘t be more happy with it,” said Hanchon. “The Jets are a great team, a hard-fought team, they didn’t quit at all. We didn’t quit at all. We stuck with the system and stuck together as a family. It’s a great feeling.”
#21 Brandon Osmundson
The positive feelings began in the first period, when the Whalers broke a tug-of-war deadlock with Hanchon’s first goal at 12:12. He popped in a puck that all other players on the ice lost sight of momentarily, but he (and the referee) both saw it.
The Whalers left the first period with additional goals from Brandon Leitz, a beautiful point shot, and a Brandon Osmundson goal off a rebound from a Conner Hunt shot. Those were scored within 1:08 of each other at 17:19 and 18:27 for the 3-0 lead after 20 minutes.
“I got a pass from Huntzy, I looked up, no one was on me, I saw two screens, and I knew then, I felt it was going to go in,” said Leitz, about his goal. “I went over and celebrated with the Elite team [on the other side of the glass]. There’s no better feeling than scoring a goal in a championship game. The team was so pumped and we actually got another one and that just really changed the momentum. It was a big goal.”
“We wanted to make sure we got pucks on the net. They had a great goaltender there, and we needed to get traffic in front of him. Get as many shots as we possibly can, that was our key,” said Whalers head coach Rod Taylor. “[We also had to] take care of our own end first and take the life out of them as far as coming through the neutral zone.”
“It’s a 60-minute game, and anything can go either way at any point,” said Jets head coach Justin Quenneville. “I was happy with the way it was going the first 10 minutes or so - no breakdowns on either side, making clean plays, making pucks go north with our speed. But that first bounce [the Whalers’ first goal] was just a backbreaker. We were never able to generate that bounce or that call for ourselves.”
#12 John Moncovich
Just 5:28 into the second, there was a little bit of a momentum swing the other way, as the Metro Jets captain Jeremy Schwartz made it 3-1 at the 5:28 mark of the second period.
“I’m proud of our captains,” said Jets head coach Justin Quenneville. “We had a young group this year, and it was truly a team effort. This game does not define this group this year.”
It was less than 5 minutes later when Osmundson (and defenseman Jaxon Rutkowski)’s future Utica College teammate John Moncovich found a seam between Jets defensemen and got one past the big and talented Fredrik Meurling in the Jets’ net for a 4-1 lead. That score stood going into the third period.
At just 2:49 of the third period, Hanchon put both the puck - off a rebound - and then himself into the net behind Meurling for the 5-1 back-breaking goal. The Metro Jets kept coming, and they outshot the Whalers by four in the third period (11-7), but Alec Lindberg stood tall in net to keep all but one of those out of the Whalers’ net. Lindberg’s stick was knocked away from him on a cover attempt, and Schwartz sent it to the front for Ceccarini to put it home at the 12:18 mark of the third. There would be nothing else afterwards on the scoresheet, and only everything the Whalers ever wanted would come to them at 0:00 on the clock.
“I give a lot of credit to my coaches and [owner] Pat Cavanagh. They push the players like nobody else,” Hanchon said. “They expect a lot from us, and we expect a lot from ourselves. The credit goes to them. They work us hard day in day out at practice. We just got it done.”
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. This group is just something special,” said the captain Osmundson. “We work hard every single day. The whole team couldn’t have worked harder. This is by far the best group I have ever been a part of.”
Quenneville was equally complimentary of his Jets team and its ownership and support system.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have an amazing owner in Pete Cammick, and I’m lucky that I have the staff and support system, and we can provide the platform for players to advance,” Quenneville said. “We focus on getting better every week, we don’t talk about winning, and then we keep striving for something more.
“Also, with the USPHL and how its run and its platform for exposure the league provided for us, we’re very excited for the future,” he added.
The Whalers are also very much a first class organization, as echoed in the postgame statement from Taylor.
“It’s a great organization here. They put family first, that’s what we’re all about,” said Taylor. “We want our kids to learn, develop and move into higher levels, whether it’s on the ice, or off the ice, that’s what this organization is all about.”