Florida Gators, as lone unbeaten team, grab Thrasher Cup at Savannah Hockey Classic

Nathan Dominitz

Savannah Morning News

The Florida Gators faced two remaining obstacles in their path to the Thrasher Cup as champions of the 23rd annual Enmarket Savannah Hockey Classic.

On the ice, the Gators played in-state rival Florida State and vanquished the Seminoles 6-1 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 in the two-day event at the Savannah Civic Center.

From the stands, the Gators watched later Saturday night as Georgia Tech, then 1-0, tried to match Florida with a victory over the Georgia Ice Dawgs and force a tiebreaker to decide the champion.

“This will be a first ever, for Florida fans, for a Florida coach, to ever, ever cheer for Georgia to win,” Florida’s eighth-year coach Mike Marcinkiewicz said.

The first tiebreaker was goals against. Florida had wins over UGA (5-4 in a shootout) and FSU (6-1) for a total of five goals allowed. Tech had opened with a 7-3 win over FSU on Friday night, meaning the Yellow Jackets needed to beat UGA and in the process not allow more than two goals, then forcing a second tiebreaker, goals scored.

Marcinkiewicz and his squad felt the tension, heightened when Georgia Tech’s Ryyan Reule scored 22 seconds into the nightcap for a 1-0 lead. 

Tech had confidence after winning two of three against the Ice Dawgs already this season — and UGA had only three losses total in a 15-3 start overall as the top team in the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The Ice Dawgs, however, responded with two goals from forwards Josh Mesaros and Matthew Bigda to lead 2-1 after the first period. Tech evened the game 2-2 on wide-open Zachary Jacobson’s point-blank shot past goaltender Ryan Testino with 7:35 left in the second period. 

When Georgia’s Dylan Spicer scored with 12:54 left in regulation for the third goal against Tech, that clinched the Thrasher Cup for Florida no matter the outcome.

And when Spicer’s teammate Sam Adler scored 1 minute and 50 seconds later, UGA had a 4-2 lead. Tech called a timeout, and closed to 4-3 on Garrett Schueller’s blast from the top of the left circle, but UGA held on for the victory to finish in second place before a crowd of 4,135.

Florida now has won the Savannah Hockey Classic four times, including three under Marcinkiewicz (2014, 2015, 2022).

“We’re just starting to hit our stride right now,” the coach said of the Gators’ season (8-4-1).

Georgia remains the all-time leader with nine Thrasher Cup titles, and Georgia Tech is next at eight. Both could wonder what could have been in their losses decided by one goal, but only Florida went unblemished over the weekend.

“There was obviously a lot on our plate,” Florida junior center Connor Nicholson said. “We’ve never played UGA before (in this season). They’re the first-place team in the league. It was a tall task ahead of us. I think the boys really responded well coming out. The way we handled both games, it was an awesome effort for both games. Bringing this trophy back for the first time in seven years is really an incredible feeling.”

Nicholson and players on all four teams were disappointed when the 2021 edition was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were that much happier to be able to play this weekend in the “Frozen Finale,” a phrase coined by organizer the Savannah Sports Council. The event will move next January from the Civic Center to the Enmarket Arena currently under construction.

“This is the weekend we look forward to every year,” Nicholson said. “Kids who don’t even go to the school are looking at this tournament. It’s an incredible tournament for everyone. Regardless of whatever happens (the rest of the season), this is an incredible win for the program. To see our team name engraved on that (trophy) forever is really awesome.”

Two very different wins were required for the Gators to accomplish their mission. They had battled the Ice Dawgs on Friday night, starting fast with a 2-0 lead only to trail 3-2 after two periods.

“We just weren’t moving our feet,” Marcinkiewicz said of the second period. “We’re losing battles along the boards and everything. We got outworked the second period. So I had to come in the locker room. I lost my voice a little bit. I had to come and yell and do what I had to do. We got back in the third.”

Florida yielded a fourth straight goal to UGA before pulling even 4-4 in regulation. After a scoreless 5-minute overtime period, Florida won the three-man shootout 1-0 behind the effort of goalie Mason Burdick.

“The goalie stood on his head,” the coach said. “He played awesome for us. In the shootout, he stopped all three shots.”

Burdick and the defense then allowed only one goal against Florida State on Saturday, really putting the pressure on Georgia Tech to beat UGA decisively.

“He’s been our rock back there,” Florida defenseman Andrew Kuczynski said. “I’m really so happy we can rely on him, day in and day out. Just a great guy, too, quiet, does his job, and absolutely dependable.”

The Gators also can depend on forward John Hunt, who scored the lone goal of the shootout, was voted the Florida player of the game in both wins, and went on to earn the Greg Stathis Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the Hockey Classic.

“I can’t say too much about John,” Marcinkiewicz said. “He’s a leader. He never takes a shift off, never complains. He goes out there and does his job.”

Taking care of business

Team veterans helped keep the club’s focus between an emotional win Friday night and Saturday’s game against a struggling FSU squad.

Kuczynski said he heard some talk about what kind of goal count the Gators might need to break a potential tie with Georgia Tech later Saturday.

“I tried to squash that,” he said following the 6-1 victory. “We’re trying to go out and win, first and foremost, and play lockdown defense after that. We can’t win (the Cup) if we don’t win (the game). After a good first and second period, we said we’re going to try to lock down the defense and limit them to one, two (goals) maybe at most. I’m pretty happy with how we did that.”

Nicholson said that after seeing how Tech had handled FSU 7-3, the Gators might have come out flat on Saturday. But they didn’t want to miss on a chance to grasp the Thrasher Cup because of a lack of intensity.

It helped that the entire team was staying in one house this weekend and could hang out together. 

“We were talking about it all night: What do we need to do? What mindset do we need to be in?” Nicholson said. “We came in and executed exactly as we planned. It all worked out in our favor.”

Tournament awards

Greg Stathis Trophy for Most Valuable Player — John Hunt, Florida.

The all-tournament team — Florida State: goaltender Jason Proot, forward Ryan Meyer; Florida: forward John Hunt; Georgia Tech: defenseman Garrett Schueller, forward Matthew Connelly; Georgia: forwards Matthew Bigda, Josh Mesaros.

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at ndominitz@savannahnow.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz

Thrasher Cup titles

Georgia (9) — 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2020

Georgia Tech (8) — 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2019

Florida (4) — 2010, 2014, 2015, 2022

Florida State (2) — 2008, 2016

Note: 2021 event canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic.

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