Even with being out-shot 42-17 — and never having more than seven shots in a single period — Rustin’s four-goal third gave them a 5-2 win to claim back-to-back state titles.
“I have nothing to say — I’m speechless,” said Rustin head coach Nick Russo. “This team always found a way to surprise the heck out of me this year and they did it again.”
Last year against Quaker Valley, Rustin came out flying, scoring early into the game and never losing the lead.
It was a different story this time around as they had to depend on the final 17 minutes of the game.
“This year was a lot tougher,” said Rustin forward Brett Christie. “(Mars) had the upperhand most of the game and we battled back in the third period.”
Regardless of how it was accomplished, Rustin has become the first team to win back-to-back titles in the ‘ A’ bracket since, ironically enough, Mars did it in 2010 and 2011.
“Back-to-back — you can’t ask for anything else,” said Rustin captain Michael Grande, who had two goals in the game. “It’s such a surreal feeling right now. I can’t even express it.”
Even with all the talent on their roster, the Golden Knights weren’t a happy bunch heading into the locker room after the second period.
“Their body language was pretty rough in the locker room,” Russo said. “I reamed them out. I told them that’s not the way champions sit in the locker room. It didn’t matter what happened to that point — what mattered was the third period. I just got back to the gameplan and it worked.”
The break once again worked in Rustin’s favor. Without it, the end might have been a completely different story.
Heading into that break, the Golden Knights were being out-shot 33-10 and were going to start the third on the power play.
“The break works to our advantage,” Russo said. “(Mars) was getting a lot of shots, but a lot of them were from the perimeter. (Jason Grande) will eat those up all night long. We knew we could bend, but we couldn’t break.”
Christie, who was the one sitting in the sin bin to start the final period, took his penalty to heart, even though Mars scored on the power play after.
“I took a bad penalty and that really got to me and the rest of the team,” he said. “I felt a little bit like that penalty-kill goal was my fault, so I had to turn it back up and give it all I had.”
And so he did as his line accounted for the next two goals for Rustin — the first from Eric Flynn and the eventual game winner from Christie himself.
“(Christie’s goal) was really nice,” said Rustin goaltender Jason Grande. “He scores a lot, but that’s a really big one for him.”
Jason Grande, who had a huge night in goal with his 40 saves — easily the most he made all season — didn’t mind all the pressure.
Even as a sophomore.
“When you get a lot of shots, you settle in — it’s easier,” he said. “I was ready for it. Our coaches watched films on the team, so we knew it was coming.”
Michael Grande sealed the win with a goal late in the game before adding an empty-netter and Mars never knew what hit them.
“It’s a heavy-weight fight,” Russo said. “You get punched in the face, we punch back — we punch, they punch and you just have to keep punching and eventually they won’t punch back anymore.”
Rustin couldn’t even wait the seconds for the clock to run out before storming the ice and mobbing Jason Grande.
“They are easily the best team we’re played all year,” Michael Grande said. “My brother played well in net. We just fed off that all game.
“I honestly don’t have any words to tell you how I feel right now. It’s just a great feeling and I’m just happy for everyone and myself.”
What Russo knows is that this win isn’t just for the current players on the team, but also for the alumni and for the classes coming in over the next few years.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Those (alumni) set the bar for these guys and now these guys set the bar.”
Though this was the third state championship for Rustin and Russo, he was visibly more emotional after this win than any other before.
“I’m shaking,” Russo said. “This one is the best. When we won the first time, Josh (his son) was playing JV for me at the time and he always wanted to win one. I always said that the first ring would be his and I always had to win another one so that Noah, my second son, would have a ring. Last year when we won it, Noah was waiting for me when I came off the ice.
“When I got on the bus this time, Noah said to me, ‘ You have to win this year, dad, so you can have a ring.’ That’s just what it’s all about.”