Game Two. Overtime. 7:38 left on the clock.
At this moment, hearts undoubtedly skipped a beat for the players, coaches and staff (and yes, parents too) after Matteo Pero potted the game-winning goal for the Vancouver North East Chiefs to even the Pacific regional championship series.
However, before the extra frame, the Tri-Cities-based under-18 boys AAA squad gave up a 3–0 lead and allowed the Calgary Buffaloes — a historic franchise in western Canadian minor hockey — to score three unanswered goals, including one on a power-play with 64 seconds left in regulation.
But Pero's heroics saved the team from potentially ending its season on a run that's been difficult for all involved stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic the last two years.
In the third and deciding contest, the ice tipped in favour of the Chiefs and held on to a 2–1 lead for the final 23 minutes and 37 seconds to win and advance to their first-ever national championship.
"Am I surprised we got it done? No. I have a tremendous belief in this group of players and staff. But, is there still some amount of shock? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to win regionals," explained general manager Greg Harding in an interview with the Tri-City News, while also giving credit to the Buffaloes for a pressure-packed series.
"I believed in this group of players and staff. I know how hard they work each day, I know how much time they put in each week to be prepared but we had to face some really tough opponents."
The 2–1 series win punched the Chiefs' ticket to the 2022 Telus Cup, which will pin six of the best U18 AAA teams in Canada against each other for the top prize.
HISTORY FOR THE TRI-CITIES AND B.C.
Vancouver North East has never gone far in a season to reach the feat.
In fact, they're the first B.C. organization since the Okanagan Rockets in 2014 to win their way to represent the Pacific region at the tournament.
Prince George's Cariboo Cougars hosted the 2017 Telus Cup and therefore, earned an automatic invite. There also hasn't been a championship the last two years due to COVID-19.
Harding says navigating the pandemic was frustrating with players being limited to a handful of games in that span.
But, in a way, it also brought the team together in hopes of a long 2021–22 campaign.
"We have developed our players as individuals and as a group. [...] would have been easy for everyone last year to just go through the motions and put in little effort because it was only six games and then nothing but practice for five months," he said.
"The players came in and worked each day; the coaches and I were able to keep them engaged and enjoyed coming to the rink each day."
The result: a 26–4–1–5 record that placed head coach Jamie Jackson's Chiefs atop of the B.C. standings.
After that, two 2–0 series sweeps and winning six of seven playoff games to capture their second Cromie Memorial Cup and U18 AAA boys blue banner in franchise history.
One could argue that having home-ice advantage also helped Vancouver North East in the Pacific regionals with all three tilts in Langley and Burnaby.
Regardless, after falling 3–2 (OT) in game one, the team rallied back for the 4–3 (OT) and 2–1 victories to defeat Calgary and advance to nationals.
Harding adds this accomplishment means a great deal to the team, which represents the communities of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore, Belcarra, Burnaby, New Westminster and Ridge Meadows.
Going to Alberta next month, Harding is looking forward to what he believes will be an amazing experience that reflects the importance of growing local hockey programs.
"I've seen it grow each year over the five years I’ve been involved. Every year, we push as a staff to continue to make it the best program," he told the Tri-City News.
"The success of the teams this year, I hope, shows everyone in our district that you don’t need to send your player away to get top level development. There’s great development right here in your backyard. [...] I know Hockey Canada is going to make it a great event."
Pero was one of seven different goal-scorers this past weekend en route to the Chiefs' Pacific title.
Dryden Kuramoto led the offensive charge with four points over the best-of-three series with Calgary, including two goals and two helpers. His second assist was on Pero's game-two overtime winner to keep Vancouver North East alive.
Theo Kochan and captain Tomis Marinkovic each tallied three points, combining for a goal and five assists.
Defenceman Matthew Wise's lone point was the series-clincher, a goal with 3:23 left in the second period of game three and the assist from Adam Lore.
Oliver Auyeung-Ashton started in all three games, which took place on Friday (April 1), Saturday (April 2) and Sunday (April 3).
The 16-year-old Coquitlam goaltender, stopped 79 of 86 shots en route to completing the comeback.
The Vancouver North East Chiefs were the first to earn a spot at the 2022 Telus Cup, which takes place from May 16 to 22 in central Alberta.
The Sydney Rush of Membertou, N.S., will be the designated hosts as its community was originally scheduled to have the national tournament this year before COVID-19 forced Hockey Canada to readjust its plans.