Former Champlain Valley Union High School boys hockey coach Doug Hopper had always hoped for one matchup in the Division I title game: His Redhawks against the Rebels of South Burlington, a clash that takes the CSB Cup to another level.
The Chittenden-South Burlington (CSB) Youth Hockey Association is a feeder program for the rival high schools, and the Cup game is a regular-season showdown the players circle on their calendars annually.
“Doug Hopper — this was his dream, so we are pretty excited,” South Burlington coach Sean Jones said. “These kids grew up together and they have a good, mutual respect for each other and play hard.
“All of our games are fun to watch,” Jones said.
And this one comes with the biggest prize.
Third-seeded CVU (15-4-3) and top-seeded South Burlington (20-2) will meet for the first time in the Division I final, squaring off tonight at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse. Game time is approximately 8 p.m., following the conclusion of the Division II contest between U-32 and Burr and Burton.
“It’s a championship game with our two teams that our rink, our youth organization and our two high school programs have been waiting for,” Jones said. “This is the pinnacle of it.”
CVU coach Mike Murray said he’s a bit detached from CSB, but can appreciate it.
“They realize that’s it’s their buddies and they want some revenge for the CSB Cup,” said Murray, whose team lost last month’s CSB Cup to South Burlington, 3-0. “They want to play South Burlington and want to get the last laugh, so there’s a little bit of extra motivation.
“But no matter who we play, we’re excited to be in the finals. That’s not lost on them though,” Murray said.
While Murray said in the preseason he considered his young squad a year away from contending for a title, the Redhawks exceeded expectations with a balanced scoring attack that rolls four lines, leadership from defenseman Alex Bulla and the emerging play of goaltender Greg Talbert, who earned a shutout in the semifinals over Essex.
Jack Hall (nine goals, 12 assists), Hoyt McCuin (five goals, 12 assists), Elliot Mitchell (10 goals, five assists) and Ryan Keelan (eight goals, seven assists) are the scoring leaders for the Redhawks, who will make their fifth Division I finals appearance in six seasons.
“I think the guys felt they were a year away and we try to be honest with each other. We feel like we can win, but we’re not supposed to,” Murray said. “We have a chance to do something special if we can finish the deal this year.”
The Rebels, backed by Tommy Royer (28 goals, 22 assists), Eric Craig (18 goals, 17 assists), Gabe Simpatico (12 goals, 17 assists) and Matt Baechle (14 goals, 15 assists), have averaged 5.3 goals per game. Bernie Thibeault leads a defensive unit that Jones calls “underrated and that’s how they like it”
“It’s a good group and they show up to work every day, they stand up for each other every day. Not only are they playing for the school and their community, but also playing, probably more importantly, for the guy sitting next to them in the locker room,” Jones said. “Top to bottom, we’ve got guys who we trust and it’s showing. It’s a chemistry thing now and we are gelling and feeling pretty good about ourselves.”
Keys to the Division I final
* Who takes advantage of the big ice: Both teams play similar, uptempo styles that can benefit from the big ice at Gutterson Fieldhouse. And both teams also like to pressure the puck. Simple conclusion: Who can do that better than the other? “I think it will be a battle of who can stay with what they want to do,” CVU coach Mike Murray said.
* The play of the goaltenders: CVU’s Greg Talbert and South Burlington’s David Streeter have quietly put together standout seasons between the pipes. How they perform tonight could play a factor. For recent examples, CVU’s Jason O’Brien and BFA-St. Albans’ Andre Morin were vital to their teams’ titles in each of the past two seasons. “You got to start at your own net and work your way out,” South Burlington coach Sean Jones said.
* South Burlington’s top-end talent vs. CVU’s depth?: CVU’s stable of up-and-coming forwards is a big reason the Redhawks went from seven wins a year ago to tonight’s D-I final. When Tommy Royer opted to return, SBHS had another highly skilled scoring weapon.”Can our numbers outweigh their top-end strength?” Murray asked.
* Prediction, South Burlington 3, Champlain Valley 2: After ending their quarterfinal nightmares, the Rebels burst through for their first D-I title in program history.