LOVELAND — It’s not often you get a championship that was 25 years in the making.
But after their hockey program was disbanded in 1987, not to be restarted until 2012, that is exactly what happened on Saturday. The Cherry Creek Bruins (19-4 overall) defeated the Monarch Coyotes (17-4-1) by a final of 3-2 in the state hockey championship on Saturday.
After so much time, what’s three overtimes to get it done, right?
In just their third season back as a program, head coach Jeff Mielnicki said he took extra measures to make sure that this team was ready for the season.
“Let’s put it this way,” Mielnicki said after the game, “we graduated basically a whole team last season. So before the winter, I took a bunch of the younger guys up to Chicago and played some of the best prep teams in the country. After that, I knew it would be a good year.”
Cherry Creek's trip to the championship game was their first in 34 years. In 1981, the Bruins dropped a 3-1 championship to Arapahoe and six years later, the program was done. Their last championship came in 1979.
For Monarch, meanwhile, 17 of the players on their own roster were not on the team during last season’s run to the championship game.
Despite the Coyotes' talent advantage up front that had been on display previously in the playoffs, the Bruins took it Monarch from the opening puck drop. Within the first 10 minutes, Creek had had a breakaway and two near misses in 10 shots against goaltender Hampus Akesson, who made 26 saves.
After a Blake Bride holding penalty gave the Bruins a productive power play, Monarch appeared to weather the storm. Shots, once 10-2 in favor of Cherry Creek, ended up a much more even 10-8 by the finish of the first period.
It was then that the self-professed “second period team” turned up the heat.
After killing part of an early penalty, Monarch caught a break as Cherry Creek’s Sean DeKramer took a five minute checking-from-behind major that carried with it a 10 minute misconduct. After a routine tripping call a few minutes later, Monarch used the full two-minute 5-on-3 to regain some of the momentum.
Despite their work, the Coyotes were uncharacteristically undisciplined in the second, getting whistled for three penalties in the frame and suffering from a general lack of communication that created scoring chances for the Bruins.
The final chance of the second came in one such situation, when a delayed call on Monarch led to Cherry Creek’s Chris Nitchen streaking down the left side of the ice and firing the puck low short side to beat Akesson for the first goal of the game with 40 second remaining in the period.
Both teams turned up the physical play in the third period, as two early hits by Bruins forwards put their Monarch counterparts on the ice, and the Coyotes responded in kind. Then with just over 11 minutes to go, Cherry Creek put home a second goal when a bad-angle shot by Nitchen careened off of Akesson and into the slot. There, Sean DeKramer buried it over the shoulder of the Monarch netminder for the 2-0 lead.
Monarch finally answered though, scoring two goals in 17 seconds in the final three minutes of regulation.
The first came when defenseman Mattjis Ossorio snuck down the slot and buried a stray puck in front; the second on an excellent effort by the team’s two leading scorers, Andrew Pickner and Blake Bride, with the latter getting the tally on a pretty pass from his linemate.
Both goals were scored with Akesson pulled for an extra attacker.
After Thursday’s six overtime affair between Creek and Dakota Ridge, it was only fitting that the championship would go to overtime as well.
The first five minute stanza was very equally matched, but by the second overtime, the ice had started to tilt towards the Coyotes. Shots were 36-26 in favor of Monarch and the play was becoming one-sided.
But the zamboni break was all Creek would need. In the third overtime, a Chris Nitchen shot again created a juicy rebound, and Nick Chavez sealed it for the Bruins.
“I don’t even play on a line with Chris,” Chavez said after the game. “He was amazing tonight and I just happened to be out there with him and when he took that shot, I knew I just had to clean it up.”
In trips to the state championship game in 2013 and 2014, the Coyotes ran into the buzz saw that is Ralston Valley and fell 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. On Saturday they fell short again, but it was a lot closer than their previous two trips.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Monarch coach Jimmy Dexter said. “At the beginning of the season, with just four seniors and 17 kids gone from last year, I didn’t think we’d be here.
“They never quit. Obviously we want to be on the other side of (the scoreboard), but these kids will be back.”
This season however, belonged to Cherry Creek. Goaltender Brady Mielnicki made 34 saves in the game, boosting the team as he had all playoffs long. And once it got to overtime, the Bruins knew it was all over.
“We thought if we got it to overtime we would win. It’s as simple as that,” Mielnicki said matter-of-factly. “We knew there were ebbs and flows. But we stayed disciplined, the kids were resilient, and in the end it was rewarded.”