CEDAR RAPIDS — While not on par with the Team USA “Dream Team” we’ve watched compete for USA Basketball the past two-plus decades, in junior hockey it’s a pretty remarkable achievement.
The United States National Team Development Program’s Under-18 team boasts an impressive seven players ranked by NHL Central Scouting among the top 44 draft-eligible North American skaters.
To put that in perspective, that’s four more than the rest of the USHL can claim in the top 50.
“We push each other every day in practice,” said Team USA winger Sonny Milano before the U18s dropped an improbable 4-3 shootout verdict Saturday night to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in front of 3,395 suddenly-delirious fans at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. “A lot of competition going on, but also we’re all together, too. It helps us get better.”
With the NHL Entry Draft about three months away, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a first-round projection that doesn’t include the 6-foot, 183-pound lefty Milano. While an NHL future is “a dream of mine,” Milano insists those types of accolades take a back seat now.
"I really don't try to worry about it too much," Milano said. "Just try to focus on getting better every day."
Along with Milano, Team USA forwards Dylan Larkin and Alex Tuch cracked the NHLCS top 21 and are also possible first-round picks.
Milano, a native of Massapequa (N.Y.), has 11 goals and 23 assists in 22 games this season (34 points) and credits the Team USA off-ice summer conditioning program and another year of USHL experience with the improvement that has the NHL taking notice.
"I think I got a lot quicker and stronger over the summer," Milano said. "Also helped my overall game; especially my defense, too."
After de-committing from Notre Dame in November, Milano will be joining Tuch at Boston College in the fall.
"We play pretty well together, we have pretty good chemistry," Milano said. "Hopefully that transitions to college."
The good chemistry was on display in the last of four straight games with the RoughRiders.
After a scoreless first period, Larkin scored on a wrister just outside the goal crease less than 2 1/2 minutes into the second period and struck again on a power play 15:24 later. It was the first power-play goal allowed by Cedar Rapids (31-19-3) in eight games.
Clark Kuster scored on a forehand from the right wing 2:29 into the final period for Cedar Rapids, but the U18s added some insurance with another power-play goal from Louis Belpedio 4:06 later.
Cue the improbable.
Down 3-1, RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson pulled goaltender Danny Tirone in favor of an extra attacker. With the RoughRiders on the offensive and 1:15 left, Andrew Poturalski punched a deflection into the net, then Corey Petrash sent the game to overtime with a goal past a shaken goaltender just 34.4 seconds later.After a scoreless overtime, Cedar Rapids’ Dylan Steman registered the only successful shootout try for either team to move Cedar Rapids into second place in the USHL Eastern Conference.