March 20, 2013

Knights defeat Northern Cyclones in thrilling AJHL finals

By Shawn Hutcheon

The Knights pose for a team photo after capturing the President's Cup as AJHL champions. (Photo: Shawn Hutcheon)

When a team holds first place for an extended amount of time, only to falter shortly before the postseason and fall from first to fourth in the standings, fans and observers do not expect that club to go on to win a championship.

Such was the case of the 2012-2013 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. General Manager/Head Coach Justin Lyle’s team was one of five squads to sit at the top of the league. Four, including the Knights, could not hold on to the spot.

Shortly after Christmas, it looked like the Knights would be the toast of the league. They had the circuit’s leading scorer in Jack Ceglarski (Byfield, Mass.) and arguably the league’s best puck-stopper in Mike DeLaVergne (Pawling, N.Y.). The forwards were big and tenacious around opponents’ nets. Add in a group of defensemen led by Tommy Dowell and you had a unit that rarely allowed opposing teams’ forwards to set screens or reach rebounds.

However, WSB hit a bump in the road and Lyle, wisely, pulled the trigger on a trade with the New Jersey Titans to acquire NJT’s leading scorer, Marcus Ortiz, and defenseman Anthony Rossetta (Robbinsville, N.J.). Upon completion of the transaction, the team began to turn its season around.    

When the postseason began, the Knights were firing on all cylinders and swept the Boston Jr. Rangers and the Connecticut Wolfpack in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, to advance for a meeting with the regular season champion Northern Cyclones, who just happened to enter the postseason as the No. 2 club in New England and would host all three games of the series.    

The series had all the signs of being one for the ages, as each team boasted some of the finest talent in the AJHL, which is evident when one takes a look at the circuit’s postseason awards.

The Knights’ Lyle took home Coach of the Year honors and Dowell was named Defenseman of the Year. Ceglarski was named to the All-AJHL First All Star Team while linemate Jason Zaleski received Second Team honors.

The Cyclones had some outstanding players of their own. Defensemen Grant Gallow and L.J. Fellows earned All-AJHL Second Team honors. Goaltender J.J. Solloway placed on the First All Star Team and earned the Goaltender of the Year award. Cyclones center Jonathan Felteau was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.

The President’s Cup championship series lived up to expectations and more. Game 1 went to the favored Cyclones (2-0) with Solloway stopping 17 shots to post the shutout.

Game 2 was a close, physical affair for the first two periods but the third period was a penalty-filled stanza that             allowed for offensive fireworks from the Knights, who scored five goals in the frame. When all was said and done, the two clubs combined for 88 shots on goal and 11 total goals with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton taking a 9-2 victory.

In Game 3, the clubs played a fast-paced, heavy-hitting contest with plenty of scoring chances at both ends of the ice. Each club’s goaltender made exceptional saves throughout. As the clock wound down in the third period, it appeared the Cyclones – holding a 2-1 lead – would claim the title, but Knights forward Matt Cessna had other plans. He tied the game with 22 seconds remaining to send the tilt into overtime, where Cessna would score his second goal at the 15:39 mark to win the game and the President’s Cup for his club.

After the game, Cessna described his game-winning goal and the feelings it brought.

“They got it deep and luckily the defenseman threw the puck out front,” Cessa, who hails from Chicago, said. “I intercepted it and just buried it. I didn’t even see it go in. I had turned to the bench and saw my boys (teammates) celebrating so I just threw my arms up.”

“It feels great,” he continued. “All the hard work we put in all year, it’s unbelievable that we came this far and we got the Cup now.”

A jubilant Lyle praised his team’s resilience as the major factor in becoming league champions.

“It’s amazing, this team never gave up,” the coach said. “We were down 2-1, came back, tied it up at the end. Great group of guys.”

Lyle also spoke of how the acquisition of Ortiz and Rossetta helped his squad.

“It boosted our confidence,” he said. “We got better every day. That’s one thing I preached about and they bought into what the coaching staff said to them, and they’re just great guys.”

An ecstatic Ortiz spoke about being traded and becoming a champion.

“As a last-year (of junior eligibility) guy, this is all you want,” the Texas native said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve got to thank the guys and the Knights for taking a chance on me. It’s been an amazing ride. I got everything I could have asked for this year and it’s been a heck of an adjustment but man, it’s been worth it.”

Ceglarski, one of the Knights’ co-captains, summed up the moment by thinking of his teammates first.

“It’s really surreal, I don’t really know what to say, right now,” said the captain. “I’m proud of all my teammates, my coaches and my organization. We battled back and I’m happy for all my teammates.”

DeLaVergne, who stopped nine Cyclone shots during a five-minute Knights penalty in the third period, followed by three more shots during a two-minute penalty kill in overtime, praised his team for the win.

“It’s awesome, amazing. I can’t even put it into words,” the netminder said. “I couldn’t have done it without everyone on this team from the coaches on down. I did everything I could and it worked out.”

Twitter: @ShawnHutcheon