The evening of Feb. 19 started off on an ominous note for the Chantilly Chargers.
While on his way to SkateQuest, the Reston ice rink where his team was scheduled to face the Oakton Cougars in a playoff game, head coach Nate Van Nuys blew out a tire. He made it to the stadium a mere five minutes before the puck dropped.
That, it turned out, was the low point of the night for Chantilly, which beat Oakton 5-4 to advance from the first round of the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League postseason.
“I guess I have to blow out another tire before the game on Monday,” Van Nuys joked as his players celebrated their win in the visiting team’s locker room.
Chantilly scored all five of its goals in the game’s second period as goalie Justin Mercer fended off a continuous onslaught of Oakton attacks to make that lead stand.
Oakton made 38 shots on goal, including 14 in the final period, and Mercer managed to block all but four of them, his defense proving to be especially valuable as the Cougars attempted to tie the game late.
By comparison, Chantilly managed only 19 shots on goal, but the Chargers made just enough of those count to seal a victory.
“We were just kind of clinging for life on that one goal lead,” Van Nuys said. “We relied on Mercer a lot. We relied on a lot of great plays in the defensive zone, and we’re lucky to get out with a win, but at the same time, the boys definitely earned it.”
Van Nuys says that keeping his team’s shots on net rate on par with that of their opponent was a key focus going into the game.
Chantilly last faced Oakton a week earlier in a 2-2 tie on Feb. 12. According to Van Nuys, the Chargers only had around 15 shots to the Cougars’ 40 shots in that game.
While there was a noticeable disparity in the end total of shots on goal, Chantilly kept pace with Oakton throughout the first half of the game, with seven shots to the Cougars’ nine at the end of the first period and 15 to 19 with four minutes to go in the second period.
Because the two teams had played each other before so recently, they were both able to learn their opponent’s skill set. Van Nuys says Chantilly’s biggest adjustments were preparing for Oakton’s speed on the ice and improving communication between players, especially when it came to defense.
“We kind of preached being a little less aggressive in terms of flying guys to their puck-carriers,” the coach said. “On the backside, we just had a lot of great plays in terms of putting the pressure on them when we were in the offensive zone.”
On offense, Chantilly found success as a team with all five goals coming courtesy of different players.
Oakton opened the scoring with an unassisted shot by Thomas Martin, his first of the night, with just under four minutes remaining in the first period.
Chantilly then countered in the second period with four unanswered goals: two of them unassisted, by Liam Kelly and Dano Silvers, and two on assists by Austin Coose, the first driven by Michael Peak and the second by Justyn Rhodes.
“Austin had a fantastic game, and his hustle is kind of what led the way for us,” Van Nuys said. “He was kind of the catalyst for a lot of our offensive strength.”
The Cougars mustered a response with four and a half minutes left in the period as Christopher Vermont slipped one past Mercer with an assist from Daniel Boddie.
However, Chantilly’s Tristan Munsterman squelched Oakton’s attempt to gain momentum mere seconds later with Tim Contos’s help on a diving shot into the net behind a scrum of red-and-white-clad players.
With 15 seconds left in the period, Martin scored his second goal of the game with an assist by Dustin Datoc. Oakton scored again 10 minutes into the last period, this time on an unassisted shot by Justin Cho, but the Cougars couldn’t scrap together a much-needed tying goal to avoid elimination.
When Chantilly’s players clustered together beside their net to celebrate their win, they seemed to raise their sticks in the air in as much relief as triumph, their own cheers drowned out by that of their fans.
The Chargers next went up against Stone Bridge in a road game at Ashburn on Monday for their second playoff game.
Though they only had a couple of days to prepare for that competition, Van Nuys says that he wanted his players to focus on the mental aspect of their game to avoid getting too amped up by the postseason atmosphere and intensity.
“I think the guys got a little excited because we were so close to the win, and at that point, you kind of mentally lapse a little bit,” Van Nuys said of the last minute or so of the game against Oakton. “You might overplay a puck, and that can be the difference in keeping them out of the net and having them score goals…Just keep your mentality straight the whole way through the game and keep hustling.”