If you compared last weekend’s Tier I Elite League Championship to the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, then the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 14-and-under girls team was the Montreal Canadiens.
Because like the Canadiens did last year, the Penguins earned the eighth and final playoff berth before defeating the No.-1 seeded team, the Chicago Mission, in the first game of the round-robin portion of the tournament.
But unlike the Canadiens, who fell in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Penguins went on to win the entire tournament while topping some more extremely talented teams from Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.
They went a perfect 3-0 in the round-robin portion – with their other wins coming over Detroit-based Honeybaked and the Ohio Flames – en route to entering the semi-finals as the No. 1 seed.
The Penguins then beat the Chicago Fury (coached by Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato’s brother Rob, no less) by a score of 2-0 in the semifinals before topping the Chicago Young Americans, 2-1, in the championship game on Feb. 6.
“It was definitely a culmination of all the work they’ve done up to this point,” Penguins head coach Chuck Fink said. “Every good team during the year kind of peaks at the right time. I think that’s what we’re doing now.”
In order to make it into the tournament, the Penguins had to win at least one of their last two games, both against the Ohio Flames.
The Penguins had just one goalie for those matches, as netminder Sam Walther also plays for the Gunnery School. So goalie Sam Smith played through the stomach flu and a 102-degree temperature to make 25 saves in a 5-2 win in the first game.
And they say girls aren’t tough.
“These girls are tough, they’re blue-collar girls, and that’s one thing that I didn’t know that women’s hockey had,” Fink said, who is in his first season coaching girls. “It’s one thing I love about my team.”
Once the team made it to the playoffs, it was the win over the Mission that got the ball rolling for the girls and made them realize what they were capable of.
“You can’t get any bigger of a confidence booster than that,” Fink said. “Because you know if you beat the Mission, you know that you can beat any other team.”
Forward Elizabeth Gerace had an outstanding weekend for the Penguins, beginning with a hat trick in her team’s 3-2 win over the Mission. She finished the weekend with six goals in four games, including the game-winning tally in the championship game.
“She’s incredible,” Fink said of Gerace. “She’s a very good player. She has a bright future in front of her ... Honestly, she’s probably one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen for her age, and that includes boys. She gets a lot of opportunities because she does everything with speed and can do everything she wants to at full speed.”
Not only did the girls get contributions up top, but Walther and Smith each performed solidly in the cage for the Penguins.
“(When) you get good goaltending and consistency between the pipes, you can take some chances, you can do some pinches and things like that, and that’s where all our opportunities kind of materialized,” Fink said. “They played with that kind of confidence through the entire weekend, because we had such good goaltending all weekend that we took chances and that’s why we won.”
They’ve also been spurred all year by the play of MacKenzie Lancaster, whose 12 goals leads the team. She led the Penguins with eight goals in five games, lifting her team to a 3-1-1 record in a showcase in Detroit about a month ago.
The Penguins had to put up a good showing in Michigan to stay in the playoff race, and Lancaster certainly came up big offensively for her team. The best part? She split time between forward and defense in those games.
“The thing about MacKenzie is that she played defense half those games because she switches back and forth,” Fink said. “She’s one of the best two-way players I’ve ever seen ... Even when she’s not producing on the scoreboard, she always contributes very heavily to the team.”
Overall, it was a fantastic weekend for the Penguins. And what’s scary is that they’re just getting started.
“Honestly, I think we can play even better than what we played (last weekend),” Fink said. “I think there’s higher grounds to go to for us.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 14-and-under girls team celebrates on the ice after their 2-1 win in the championship game on Feb. 6.