CRANBERRY TWP, Pa. — What could be better than winning a division championship? How about an overtime game-winner for a championship that caps off an undefeated season? The Meadville Bulldogs did just that, as they finished off the PIHL Division II season with a 2-1 overtime win against the Carrick Cougars Wednesday night.
Meadville dominated the game early, leading 1-0 after a period and outshooting Carrick 17-2 in the first frame. However, Carrick fought hard and tied the game late to help send the game into overtime. It did not take long into overtime for the better team to win, though. The Bulldogs saw a game winning shot off the stick of senior Jeff Millen go between the pipes to seal the deal.
“It is surreal,” Millen said. “I was sitting in the slot and the puck got to me. I shot it for the top right corner and it went in. Every hockey player dreams of the moment, but it is really surreal when it happens.”
After a hat trick in the Division 2 semifinals, Millen’s goal was his fifth of the playoffs and 28th of the season. Still, it proved to be the most important in the biggest situation.
The reason in which the game was so close, and took until overtime to seal the deal was the stellar goaltending by Nathan Norkevicus. Norkevicus faced 45 shots in regulation and only surrendered one goal. He essentially stood on his head with the puck in his end the entire night and would have easily been the star of the game had Carrick finished off the win.
“That was as good of performance I have seen in all of my years,” said Meadville coach Jamie Plunkett. “Nathan was terrific for them.”
“Nathan Norkevicus, I do not even know what to say about him,” Carrcik coach Matthew Maurice stated. “There was a two on none in the third period he just made an incredible play to highlight his entire night.”
Despite surrendering the game-ending goal, Norkevicus should hardly hold his head down with his performance.
Norkevicus and his play put Meadville into a spot they had not been in much this season. Norkevicus and Carrick took Meadville into overtime earlier this season before the Bulldogs got the best of them with a 5-4 win. Meadville also skated to a tie with Burell in late January. Aside from those two games, their closest margin of victory was a four-goal win. It is safe to say that in the toughest of times, Meadville was in an environment they were not quite used to this season, but they thrived in it and found the way to win.
“We kept our composure,” Plunkett described. “Last year, Carrick beat us in the semi-finals, and you could see us lose composure. We were smacking sticks off of the boards, our players were visibly frustrated. This time, we said, ‘Hey, let’s just keep doing what we are doing and it will work out,’ and it did.”
Plunkett credits his senior-led team for being experienced and understanding the situation, and the frustration of seeing over 40 shots denied.
“We have four seniors who played four years for us,” he said. “As freshmen, they saw a lot of ugly one-sided losses. They stayed the course, and we surrounded them with talent and for the first time in a long time we have internal depth, and it created internal competition for playing time. That is what made us a strong team.”
KEEPING THE STREAK ALIVE
While the PIHL season is over for Meadville, and they are undefeated, there is still one small journey left for the team. Next week the team heads to Ohio to participate in a four-team tournament, featuring teams from Ohio, Texas, and Illinois. The dates and schedule of the tournament are to be determined, but in the meantime, the Bulldogs will celebrate their undefeated season.
“We didn’t lose to a Pennsylvania team all season,” Plunkett said. “It was one of our team goals, we wanted to get through the league undefeated and we did that, so it is a great feeling.”
Meadville will now look to extend their unbeaten streak to teams outside of Pennsylvania next week in Dayton.