There were several story lines behind this game for the NIHL championship. One was that Pekin was in this game last season but it had ended in a heartbreaking loss. There was a bit of a feeling of some unfinished business. Another story was that since the Dragons had won the Presidents Cup for the best regular season record and had come into the post season tournament seeded number one, there was a question whether they would be able to keep up their high quality play throughout the entire tournament (and go 5 for 5 in tournament championships during the season). Third, the Dragons were facing a tough Ice Dogs team that Pekin had faced and defeated a total of four times during the NIHL regular season and in the Silver Stick regional tournament. There was a question whether the Dragons could beat the Dogs for a fifth time. Last, but not least, there was a question whether anyone would be injured during the pre-game pyramid the Dragonette Cheer Squad were going to try to perform. I am happy to report that there were no injuries during the pyramid (I have pictures to prove that the pyramid did actually take place). In fact the pyramid building only cranked the Cheer Squad up more so they were especially wired during the pre rose ceremony festivities. In fact, the Pekin mothers may have intimidated the Ice Dogs mothers a little with their dancing skill when everyone was lined up prior to the laser light show.
The laser light show, rose ceremony and pre-game theatrics all lived up to their billing but finally the two teams lined up and the puck was dropped for all of the marbles. It didn't take long for the game to get really interesting as the Ice Dogs scored in the first minute of the game. It looked like the game might be a real track meet but Pekin kept their heads up, the defense tightened and the game settled into a defensive battle for much of the first period. Oddly enough, the best scoring chances for Pekin came during periods when they were short-handed but nothing would go in the net. The first period ended with the Ice Dogs leading 1-0, and the shots on goal were tied at 5 apiece.
The second period started out like the first ended but there was an anxious moment at about the 8 minute mark when Pekin got caught in a line change and for a while it was five Ice Dogs against two chicks with sticks. Fortunately, the girls were able to keep control of the puck behind their own net until the forwards were able to get into position and a disaster was averted. At 6:47 in the period, Pekin generated heavy pressure in front of the Ice Dog net but the bouncing puck just would not go in, but it did result in a covered puck. After the ensuing face-off in the Ice Dog end, Madison Stear was able to hold the zone from her defensive point position and dumped the puck back deep into the zone. Eventually, the puck would find Tyler Kuhn in the high slot and Tyler would hammer it home for the equalizer at 6:36. The score would stay tied until the Dragons were able to generate a 3 on 2 rush with 30 seconds left and Tyler Kuhn would get his second goal of the period as he rifled another puck into the twine. The period would end with the Dragons pulling ahead 2-1 and with the momentum swinging Pekin's direction.
Early in the third, Pekin was able to add another goal to forge a seemingly safe 3-1 lead but the Ice Dogs were able to tally their second goal at about the 8:30 mark and things started to get interesting. On the next shift, about 30 seconds later, there was a bang, bang play to an Ice Dog standing just to the right of Lane's crease and just like that, the score was tied 3-3 with 8 minutes left in the period and things were really interesting. This would have been a good time for the Dragons to lose their composure but they just wouldn't let that happen. After the second goal in less than a minute, the defense once again tightened and Pekin would go back ahead with a goal at the 5:36 mark. After giving up two goals in less than a minute, the Dragon defense was once again doing a good job of forcing all of the Ice Dogs rushes to the outside and controlling the corners. And of course, when something did get through, Lane was there to knock it down and cover it up. There had been a nervous moment earlier in the game when a rushing Ice Dog had steamrolled Lane but after laying on the ice just long enough to give four or five of us small heart attacks, Lane was back up and between the pipes. Even though the Dragons were back up by one, the way the momentum had swung back and forth, a one goal lead had the crowd pretty jittery.The crowd was able to settle down a little when, at 4:45, Connor Taylor got another one of his clutch goals when he was able to tip in a rebound. It seems that every time Connor gets a goal, it is a clutch goal in a pressure situation. With a two goal lead, the Dragons were able to withstand tremendous Ice Dog pressure but it took some sacrifice to preserve the lead. Brenden Petty took a shot off the arm that had him hobbling to the bench but he was back for this next shift and blocked another one (note that Brenden was flashing a pretty nasty bruise to anyone that would look, at the post game pizza party). The two goal lead would stand and the inaugural Wolves Cup that goes to the NIHL tournament champion would have to travel to central Illinois to reside in Pekin with the Dragons.
Once again the band of Dragon warriors kept their heads and took care of business. Tyler Kuhn would be named MVP of the championship game and the team headed for a nearby pizza parlor to celebrate. The celebration lasted about an hour or two but the accomplishments of this team should be remembered for a long time. This team has won all five of the tournaments they have participated in and won the NIHL regular season championship. This amount of success is almost hard to believe and will probably take quite a while to sink in. For now, everyone associated with this team; coaches, families, friends and supporters, can take great pride in being involved with a pretty special group of kids and being part of a great chapter in the story of central Illinois hockey.