Author: Tom Robinson
WEST CHESTER, Pa. — The closer the Philadelphia Little Flyers got to a championship, the stingier the defense and goaltending became.
The defense took care of the first two periods in Sunday afternoon’s semifinals and Monday morning’s finals, then goalie Ava Re got the Little Flyers through both third periods.
Re stopped 42 of 43 shots in the last two games for Philadelphia, which captured a title close to home when it defeated the Canton Blades (New York), 2-1, in the 1A final of the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Girls Tier II 14U National Championships.
The Little Flyers went 108:32 without being scored upon while coming within less than three minutes of back-to-back shutouts to conclude the tournament.
Once the shutout streak was broken, things got interesting.
Re preserved the one-goal lead by stopping a clean breakaway with 1:47 left and was still facing pressure as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Against strong competition in the third period of a close game, Re said she anticipated facing a late surge.
“I always expect it to be super tough,” Re said. “I know that team out there is strong.”
Competition, however, was just what Re was looking for this season when she made the commute from Bel Air in northeast Maryland to Aston in the western suburbs of Philadelphia for her first season with the Little Flyers.
There, Re played for a coach, Grace Klienbach, who was not just new to the team, but working behind the bench for the first time this season.
Klienbach, 28, a former Neumann University player from Eustis, Florida, juggled coaching the Little Flyers with playing her fourth professional season. After three seasons with the Connecticut Whale, she played with the Buffalo Beauts this season.
“Defense has really been one of our strong points,” Klienbach said. “We also create a lot of our offense based upon our defense.
“So, it’s awesome to see them be able to shut down the other team, but still be able to provide some offense, whether it’s on rushes or making those nice tape-to-tape passes. They’ve really been the backbone of our team so it was nice to see that stand out in nationals as well.”
Jayne Gamburg, the leader of the defense, also matched Little Flyers teammate Alyssa Viola for the tournament scoring lead with eight points. Gamburg got five of her points on goals while Viola had four goals.
Gamburg scored the game-winner in the championship on a wrist shot from the slot on the power play as Canton was reorganizing seconds after a 5-on-3 switched to 5-on-4. Viola assisted both goals in the final.
Tivoli Blue often joins Gamburg on defense during special teams. Lily Flynn also had a strong tournament at the blue line where the Little Flyers also got steady contributions from Emma Podulka, Georgia Murphy and Theadora Dunckel.
The Little Flyers relied on the defense to give the offense time to pull the team out of two predicaments and into the finals.
Philadelphia lost to the Tri-City Eagles, 2-1, in overtime in the first game.
Two straight wins put the Little Flyers in bracket play, but they fell behind, 2-1, late in the second period of the quarterfinal against the New Jersey Bandits.
“The thing with our girls is if they’re having fun, they’re going to be successful,” Klienbach said. “As soon as they’re no longer having fun, then we’re in trouble.
“Whenever we’re in a situation like that where it gets a little stressful, we just try to keep the mood light and just keep them fired up — keep them having that burning desire to win.
“For this final game, what really pumped them up is I just kept telling them that if we win today, we will be the first-ever Little Flyers [girls] team to win Nationals.”
From behind in the quarterfinals, Philadelphia scored the next seven goals. The Little Flyers then scored the final three of a 4-2 win over the Bandits, a 2-0 shutout of WEHL Western from Wisconsin in the semifinals and the two second-period goals that put them in control for most of the final.
Kelly Stevens made seven third period saves in the victory over New Jersey.
Re had 11 of her 19 saves in the semifinal shutout during the third period.
The Little Flyers had a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard and a shot advantage before Canton peppered Re in the third period, outshooting Philadelphia, 14-2, over the final 16 minutes and 24-21 for the game.
“I had no thought except just stop the puck, do everything I can to keep that puck out of the net,” Re said.
Both finalists got there by winning four consecutive game after losing by one goal in the opener. While the Little Flyers lost in overtime to the Tri-City Eagles Thursday, Canton fell to the host Philadelphia Junior Flyers, 2-1, on a goal with four minutes left.
Taylor Stoll led the Canton offense, scoring five goals in the tournament. Ella Matejcik scored from in front with 2:57 left for the only Blades goal of the final.