Fill up those tablets with movies and music, catch up on schoolwork, and maybe some sleep. After all, the Fresno Monsters officially have the longest trip to the 2021 USPHL National Championships Presented by LTD Hospitality.
They earned it after winning a pair of midweek single-elimination games against the Anaheim Avalanche and Las Vegas Thunderbirds.
From California to Chesapeake, Va., is roughly 3,000 miles, but it’s all worth it for the Monsters and Head Coach Cody Key to prove what the first-year USPHL franchise can do.
“We are super excited, we think we can do it for sure. How the cards will play out for us, it all depends on everything from bad bounces to posts hit, but we have a lot of momentum,” Key said. “We haven’t seen any of the teams back East, but we know the Pacific has always been a tough, gritty division from our days in the WSHL. A lot of the teams we’ve seen making Nationals have a lot of skilled players. We have to take the body early and throw them off of their game.”
The team was able to get the 7-2 victory against the Thunderbirds, a team they saw 14 times in 40 games. With Southern Oregon shutting down operations early in the season and the San Diego Sabers leaving for Hub City Tampa, the Thunderbirds and Monsters got to know each other very well. The Monsters lost the season series 5-8-1 so there was no telling who was earning the Nationals berth.
“We knew who their go-to guys were, we knew their goaltending. However, we had dropped two good late games because of dumb, late penalties. Las Vegas is in the same boat as us, with some players who got into penalty trouble, so it was who could get under the other’s skin more would win that game,” said Key. “Our guys wanted that game, and it ended up being our best start. I don’t think we ever had a three-goal lead after the first all year.”
With various showcases canceled this year, Fresno only ventured out of the Pacific Division once, in an early February trip to Utah to face Mountain Division competition, along with Las Vegas and Anaheim.
“That was a rough trip for us. We had one of our top scorers Leon Biller out with an injury, and we lost Nick Leach - who just does everything to win a hockey game - to a season-ending injury,” said Key. “The Mountain Division was very fast, very good and structured. We had just picked up guys like Ricky Bredberg, Jett Arminen, and Nick Privitera who made a big impact late, and we got Ty McNeil back from the NCDC [Philadelphia Hockey Club].”
Key gave the Monsters a couple of days off after Thursday night, only getting back to practice on Saturday, March 13.
“In playoff hockey, it’s all about rest. We’ve touched on everything by now. The guys know what they have to do, so it’s about keeping them fresh and not gassed,” said Key. “We’ll go into Virginia fresh and with the same ‘do or die’ mentality after these single-elimination playoff games.”