Samuli Niinisaari scored twice in the final minutes, and Matthew Barbolini scored the lone shootout goal to lift the Lincoln Stars past Team USA U18's 6-5 in a shootout Friday at the Ice Box.
With Niinisaari's two goals late, Stars coach Cody Chupp was not afraid to put him out to open the shootout.
"Hot stick," Stars assistant coach Chris Michael said. "He scores the last two goals of the game there, and hey, he's got the hot stick, we might as well try him."
Niinisaari failed to score in the shootout, as did many others until Barbolini ended the game in the fourth round. Samuel Hlavaj finished with 46 saves, but stopped the likes of Jack Hughes, Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras in the shootout. All four players could hear their name called in the upcoming NHL Draft.
Lincoln once trailed 4-0 after Hughes, likely the No. 1 NHL Draft pick, and Caufield each scored two goals in the first 25 minutes of play. Caufield scored twice in the first period and Hughes added one in the first period and five minutes into the second period.
Trailing 5-3 with 2:07 remaining, the Stars earned a power play after Alex Vlasic received a double minor.
With both teams already skating 4-on-4 due to earlier penalties, the Stars gambled by pulling starting netminder Samuel Hlavaj, and it paid off.
With the man advantage, Niinisaari was able to bring Lincoln within one, 5-4, at the 18:21 mark. 13 seconds later, Niinisaari struck again to tie the game.
"I saw a bunch of kids that didn't want to quit, and I couldn't be more proud of this group right now," Michael said. "It's easy to pack it up when (Team USA) scores their power-play goal to make it 5-3, but credit to all our players. They bought in from when our meeting started at 5:20 (p.m.) all the way up until Barbs put that in to end the shootout there. What a hell of a job they did tonight."
After Team USA took a 4-0 commanding lead, the Stars started to make a push early in the second period. Brock Bremmer countered Hughes' second goal to put Lincoln on the scoreboard and cut it to 4-1. In the third period, Ross Mitton and Grant Johnson each tallied a goal for three straight for the Stars. Team USA would regain a two-goal lead on the power play before Niinisaari pulled through.
"Our guys just continued to stick with it and get pucks to the net," Michael said. "We kind of simplified our game. This is all our players tonight, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
The two teams will be back in action Saturday at the Ice Box at 7 p.m.