In one of the most dramatic games imaginable, the New York Pee Wee Rangers spotted the New Jersey Devils a two-goal lead and then clawed their way to a comeback before falling 3-2 in a shootout before a thrilled Le Colisee crowd of over 10,000 on the final Saturday of the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament.
There was no little irony that the New York Pee Wee Rangers were facing a team representing the New Jersey Devils in a quarterfinal matchup of the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament. The historic rivalry of the two NHL clubs was on everyone's mind as the puck dropped for the opening faceoff.
But two uncharacteristic turnovers early in the game, one that led to a three-on-one and the other to a shorthander, found their way to the back of the Rangers net. The first Devils goal came at 8:24 of the first period. It marked the first time in the entire tournament, including the exhibition games, that the Pee Wee Rangers had to play from behind.
The challenge became that much greater at 2:18 of the second period when Jersey went up by two. The kids from the Garden state were big and strong and the choppy ice worked, perhaps, to their benefit.
But at the end of the second period, the Rangers had a chance to collect themselves in the dressing room. Co-coach Jeff Devenney made it clear to goaltender Spencer Knight that he had bailed out his teammates time and time again throughout the tournament, and now it was their turn to take his back. Co-coach Paul Messier reminded the boys that the fresh sheet of ice would work to their favor against the slower New Jersey team and the Rangers' skill, speed, and, most of all, determination would be the key to getting them back in the game. The New York Pee Wee Rangers listened well - they were about to play a third period that was as inspired as it was thrilling.
Sure enough, just 23 seconds into the period Artie Kaliyev banged one home on assists from Aaron Aboodi and Trevor Zegras. Notice was served on New Jersey that the Rangers were coming and they were coming hard. Chances were traded at each end, but both goaltenders came up big. Midway through the third, Spencer Knight made a miraculous glove save that kept the Rangers alive.
As the minutes ticked down, the urgency rose. With a minute left in the game New York pulled the goalie and put out a sixth skater increasing the pressure on New Jersey.
Following a furious assault, the Devils goalie froze the puck setting up a faceoff in the Jersey end with less than 20 seconds remaining. Suprisingly, the Devils coach called a time-out giving the Rangers top line a chance to rest. The Colisee crowd was buzzing. Trevor Zegras won the draw, slid the puck over to Aaron Aboodi, who hammered the puck home to tie the game. The big clock at center ice said 9.6 seconds remained in the game. Staring adversity in the face, the New York Pee Wee Rangers had completed a stunning comeback that took hard skating and determination from one end of the period to the other. This game was going to overtime.
Playing four-on-four in overtime, both teams traded chances amid raucous action. Nevertheless, the five minute OT ended without a goal, necessitating a shootout. Going first, captain Dom Fensore beat the Jersey goalie to stake the Rangers to a 1-0 shootout lead. But New Jersey would score twice over the next three attempts and suddenly the game was over. The Devils would advance to the semis and New York’s tournament was finished.
The dream was over. But the accomplishments remain:
The New York Pee Wee Rangers went 6-1-1 in the tournament outscoring the opposition 25-8. Goaltender Spencer Knight was the talk of the tournament. He recorded four shutouts over eight games including the exhibitions. In the four official games, he had two shutouts and yielded just four goals against. Much credit also belongs to the defense in front of him. Superb efforts came from Dom Fensore, Ryan Pineault, Cooper Moore, Garrett Sundquist, Griffin Grise, and Will Gilson.
Up front the team was led by an elite first line of Artie Kaliyev, Trevor Zegras and Aaron Aboodi. In the four official games, gunner Kaliyev had five goals and an assist, brilliant playmaker Zegras posted two goals and four assists, and never-yielding wingman Aboodi notched one goal and two assists, including the huge tally with 9.6 left against the Devils that no one will ever forget.
The second and third lines skated with heart and fearless determination led by the likes of Briggs Gammill, Connor Carroll, Zach Mousakes, Blake Swiggett, Liam McLinskey, and Vincent Spaziante. All represented the red, white, and blue of their country and the Rangers in first-class fashion.
Special mention goes to backup goalie Maxim Caouette, who won both of his exhibition games but showed his real heart on the final Saturday. Taking a nasty spill on a slippery staircase on the way to the dressing room, he fell and chipped his two front teeth. Showing true hockey player courage, Max never skipped a beat, dressed for the game against New Jersey, and was ever-ready if needed.
A big thank you goes to co-coaches Paul Messier and Jeff Devenney who taught and inspired a talented group of 12-year-olds, urging them to greatness every step of the way. The kids gained immeasurable benefit from their knowledge and experience. Further thanks go to parents Gary Zegras, who overcame a nasty fall of his own and never lost his smile or his enthusiasm, and team manager Laura McLinskey who handled everything that came her way gracefully and skillfully.
The billets were the best Quebec had to offer led by the inimitable Ed Sweeney and the hospitable Stephane Lafrance. What an opportunity the kids had to learn and live la vie québécoise.
At the end of the day, the Pee Wee Rangers fell a bit short of their dream. But that’s what can happen in single-game elimination tournaments where an odd bounce of the puck can make all the difference. Every player on the team reached his greater goal of developing his skills under the big-time spotlight of the greatest Pee Wee tournament in the world. The memories and lessons learned from old Quebec will never be forgotten.