The Philadelphia Jr. Flyers were down, but never out.
This applied to not just their final two games of the Eastern Hockey League Premier championship series, but to the series at large.
By Joshua Boyd
In the end, the Jr. Flyers pushed aside a two games to one deficit to regional rival the Philadelphia Little Flyers.
First, it was a come-from-behind double overtime victory in Game 4 to force a Game 5. The rubber match was set for Monday at the Little Flyers’ home IceWorks Complex in Aston, just a few miles from the Junior Flyers’ own home rink in West Chester, Pa.
Late in Game 5, the Junior Flyers found themselves down 4-2. From there, it was the Luke Benitez Show. The ’97 from Ashburn, Va., rose to the occasion with two late regulation goals and then the game-and championship-winner in overtime for a 5-4 Junior Flyers win.
“I just try to help my team out,” said Benitez, a second-year Junior Flyer. “We’ve been battling back all season, and I just help my team out any way I can.”
Like great inventions over time, the Junior Flyers took some time to be built into the well-oiled machine they became by midseason and by the end of the playoffs.
By the time Thanksgiving 2016 came around, the Junior Flyers proved to be a good team at 11-6-3, but that included a 4-4-1 stretch from October into November.
“I would never have guessed this. They were just a bunch of kids coming in. They were hard workers, but you could never guess that [this was a championship team],” said ninth-year Junior Flyers head coach Jerry Domish.
Something just clicked in December. The Junior Flyers won a 1-0 overtime game against the Vermont Lumberjacks on Dec. 17 and won their next seven in a row. After a 3-2 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Revolution on Jan. 23, the Junior Flyers went back to business – 14 wins in a row to end the season, and a 21-0-1 run from Dec. 17 to the end of the regular season.
Even despite those personnel losses, the Junior Flyers won three more in a row to start the playoffs, including elimination of the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack in the first round. The East Coast Wizards ended the streak at 17 wins in a row, but the Junior Flyers beat them in a 2-1 series.
The next order of business was a two games to none sweep of the defending champion New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.
That set up the all-Philly final series between the top two teams in the regular season.
The Philadelphia Little Flyers came off their third straight regular season championship, and a season that saw a league record 30-game winning streak. The Little Flyers won Game 1 with a 2-1 overtime victory, but the Junior Flyers hadn’t lost two games in a row since Nov. 14-20, and they weren’t about to revisit that fate.
A two-goal game by Barry Kneedler helped the Junior Flyers to a 4-2 victory and an even series after the first weekend. The Little Flyers came back after a six-day break and employed their league-best defense in shutting down the Junior Flyers 3-0.
The West Chester squad was now on the brink of elimination and coming in off a goal-less game.
However, in front of a large and loyal Junior Flyers crowd at the IceLine facility, there would be no denying the Junior Flyers.
First to break was the Junior Flyers’ goalless drought of 82 minutes, eight seconds coming into Game 4. Sean Castagna threw a seeing-eye shot on goal that found its way in at the 52-second mark of the game.
The teams essentially traded goals for most of the first two periods, leading to a 3-3 tie going into the third, which was largely quiet before the Little Flyers’ Alex Ochterbeck gave the Little Flyers a lead with 4:18 remaining in the game – and the Junior Flyers’ season if they didn’t do anything in that short time.
Amidst chaos in the Little Flyers’ zone, with the Junior Flyers using an extra attacker, Kneedler was the game-tying hero. He was also the overtime hero, throwing a long shot that – just like the opening goal of the game – found its way home.
“They all believed in each other,” said Domish. “It’s hard to summarize in a couple of seconds. We’ve lost players all year that were very valuable to injuries, but we just kept going.”
They did, indeed, back to Aston for Monday Night Hockey. The Junior Flyers did not take this second chance for granted, not even when they never held a single lead in regulation of Game 5, being down by two goals for stretches of the second and third periods.
Down two with less than four minutes remaining, Benitez first found a hole through three Little Flyers defenders to get to the net. Next, Benitez came cruising in and was the beneficiary of a pass from behind the net, which he buried to tie Game 5.
Benitez, who finished eighth in Junior Flyers scoring during the regular season, was not done yet.
Third-year Junior Flyers defenseman Josh Hinderliter put a shot towards the net. The puck redirected in off the stick of – who else? – Luke Benitez.
“It was on the wall, and I just tried to get to the front of the net, and it worked out,” Benitez said. “Unbelievable. Two years here, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
The Junior Flyers won their first-ever championship in the Eastern Hockey League. This is also their first if you count the program’s time in the former Atlantic Junior Hockey League.
“If you look at our scoring, it was spread out all year,” said Domish. “If one line or someone else fell apart, it was just a team effort, no superstars.”
The fates tried to keep the Junior Flyers from their destiny – first, regular contributor Adam Papayoanou was lost for the playoffs to an ankle injury. Next, Swedish national Ludvig Nilsson was unable to play in the postseason due to an expired visa.
“We lost two players before [the playoffs], two great forwards,” added Domish, “and we still won it.”
Read past EHL Premier articles in our archives:
Our April cover feature, A Year Later, the EHL Still Leads the Way