|Stone Bridge skated past Bishop O’Connell 5-2 in the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League championship game Feb. 27 at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The Bulldogs won their sixth NVSHL championship.—Photo Courtesy/Elliott Root|
No matter that the illustrious Stone Bridge hockey program now owns more than a handful of championship rings. The one they just won might be the sweetest.
"Because we really had to work hard for this one," said John Lynch, the man who's bench-bossed the Bulldogs through all 14 of their seasons in the 14-year-old Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League.
Six of those seasons have ended with kids in silver and Carolina blue hoisting the Capitals Cup - most recently, Feb. 27 at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington on a stunning come-from-behind 5-2 win against Bishop O'Connell for the NVSHL championship.
Stone Bridge (13-0) powered in four straight in the final period to capture the top prize in Virginia high school hockey, again.
"Tonight we had talent and we had effort. That's why..." Lynch said. He trailed off the postgame interview to congratulate another Bulldog, then returned. "I am extremely happy for this team, for the coaches, for the whole program."
A three-minute span in the middle of the final period was why Lynch felt that way, and why music and shouts emanated from the closed locker room door behind him.
It almost wasn't such a convivial mood. From the game's third minute until the 43rd, O'Connell (9-2-2) controlled the lead with two first-period tallies followed by a packed-in defense. The Bulldogs kept shooting it in, but the Knights kept it out.
Stone Bridge's only goal through two periods came from Ryan Leibold, the league's Player of the Year, with snappy assists from Luke Giroux and all-league forward Cade Groton. But the Bulldogs grew frustrated trying to solve O'Connell goalie Zack Hale, the first-team all-NVSHL pick.
Lynch said the locker room was businesslike during the intermission.
"We just told them we had to keep playing our game and working hard, and they did," the coach said. "They knew this was an opportunity."
Seven minutes into the 18-minute third period, defenseman Jack Turner wristed a low liner from the left wing of the blue line that snuck into the net for a power-play goal, tying the game at last.
Less than 90 seconds later, the Bulldogs were again up a man when Connor Lenaghan poked it in from a congested crease, putting them up a goal.
Less than 70 seconds after that, Nick Ryerse knocked home a rebound as Stone Bridge got traffic in front of Hale again.
Suddenly staked to a two-goal advantage, it was the Bulldogs' turn to clamp down. The defense killed off a penalty as freshman goalie Sam Kukulich turned in a goal-stopping pad save.
The cherry on top came with 10 seconds left, when Groton broke away and fed senior Nick Kaufman for the empty-net slam dunk.
Kukulich, the only netminder the Bulldogs used this year, made 25 saves for the win. Stone Bridge hammered 50 shots at Hale, who stopped 46. Jack Good, Nick Haeff and Garrett Mulvihill had one assist apiece.
At game's end, the Bulldogs joyously shed helmets, sticks and gloves and sprinted to the sidewall to celebrate with a throng of cheering supporters.
Stone Bridge's latest crown halts a championshipless mini-drought. The past two campaigns saw Stone Bridge run the regular-season table before falling to Briar Woods, last year in the final, before in the semis.
Kaufman was a freshman for the 2012 championship, but wasn't yet a major player. Winning one while playing starter's minutes is a satisfying way to finish his high school career.
"This is pretty cool," he said, soaking in the emotion of the moment. "To win it in my senior year, in my last game...I can't explain it."
Senior forward Griffin Vosbeck wasn't yet on varsity for the 2012 title. Claiming the cup in 2015 is, for him, "just incredible."
"Everyone's just so happy that we were losing at first and came back," Vosbeck said. "Getting to win it now is awesome. I'm always going to look back at this moment."
Stone Bridge Bulldogs
John Lynch (head)
-Photos by Elliott Root