In the last 25 years, the Stanley Cup has been won back-to-back only twice. Detroit won it in both 97 and 98. While the Penguins did it most recently in 2016 and again in 2017. Simply making an appearance in back-to-back finals is fairly uncommon in and of itself. In those same 25 years, that list includes Detroit in 97 & 98 (won both), Dallas in 99 & 2000 (won in 99), Detroit again in 2008 & 2009 (won 2008), and Pittsburgh in 2008 & 2009 (won 2009) as well as 2016 & 2017 (won both). In total, the number of teams that simply appeared in the finals in back to back seasons is an extremely short list with only 3 teams accomplishing that feat in the last 25 years. While the LHSHL isn’t quite the NHL, what the Seminole Sharks did on February 17th is nothing short of incredible.
Before we jump in to the 20-21 Lightning Cup final, lets rewind the clock roughly 1 year. February 9, 2020 to be exact. The day the Seminole Sharks won their first Lightning Cup title. With 4-point performances from Ronan Keenan (4A), Carsan Cabral-Downes (1G, 3A), and Maxim Thellab (3G, 1A), the Sharks defeated the George Jenkins Eagles 7-4. 3 additional players would also contribute points for the Sharks in their victory including Jaden Reilley, Cooper Kappeler, & Ryan Bahula. After the confetti fell, the cup was hoisted, and the championship photos were taken, the group that was the 2019-2020 Seminole Sharks was no more. The group that was, and forever will be the 2019-2020 Lightning Cup Champions, had played their last game together.
As is the case with all high school sports, player turnover is inevitable. The offseason would see 5 players graduate out, and an additional 3 move on to other hockey opportunities. Nearly 1/3 of the Sharks roster would not be returning for the 2020-2021 season. Making the chances of a repeat campaign that much more difficult. While those that left would be missed, the core, or should I say the heart, of the team, would remain. And under the leadership of Head Coach, Stephen Nickel, this team would remain motivated.
When the Sharks took the ice for the first game of the 20-21 season on October 2nd, knowing what we know now, perhaps it was fate that the Sharks would meet Durant in their first contest of the year. They would drop that game 3-2. After the first 7 games, the Sharks were 4-3-0, with 2 of those losses coming at the hands of the Durant Cougars. No doubt a slow start for this group, who 1 year earlier, started the 19-20 campaign winning their first 14 games. But as may people will tell you, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. After receiving their 3rd loss of the year on November 13th to the East Lake Eagles, these Sharks would not lose again.
The Sharks would win their next 15 regular season matchups and secure 1st place in the Lecavalier Division. Senior forward Sebastian Middleton would lead the entire Lightning High School Hockey League in every major offensive category including goals, assist and total points. The Sharks would outscore their opponents 139 to 45, generating over 6 goals per game. Last but certainly not least, they earn a bye through the first round of the Lightning Cup Playoffs, meaning they would only need to win 3 games instead of 4 to successfully defend their title.
They would first face Palm Harbor in the 2nd round, and left no doubt that they meant business as the defeated the Hurricanes 6-1 at Tampa Bay Skating Academy on February 5th. Waiting for them in the semifinals in round 3? None other than the undefeated East Lake Eagles. The last team to have defeated the Sharks way back on November 13th. The Sharks were ready.
In arguably one of the most exciting games of the 20-21 season, Sebastian Middleton would open the scoring 3:11 into the contest, giving the Sharks an early 1-0 lead. East Lake would come clawing their way back to take the lead midway through the 2nd period before Maverick Crupi would tie it up, and Jacob Sciandra would put in the game winning, and conference winning goal and would send the Sharks back to the Lightning Cup Final in a stunning 4-3 victory over the Eagles. Next up, the Durant Cougars and the Lightning Cup Final at Amalie Arena.
It’s crazy to call it a revenge tour when you are the defending champs and have only lost 3 games all year. But truth be told, while the tour may be short, that is exactly what the Sharks were up against. Seminole had only lost to 2 different teams in the regular season. They just defeated the powerhouse Eagles, and had 1 stop left on the tour: the Durant Cougars.
Throughout the regular season, both the Sharks and the Cougars shared the exact same record. 19 wins, 3 losses, and no ties. These teams were so close statistically, you would think we were making up the stats as we go. I assure you we are not.
Goals against per game? Durant 2.00, Seminole 2.05 – Advantage, Cougars
Goals scored per game? Durant 5.77, Seminole 6.32 – Advantage, Sharks
Powerplay effectiveness? Durant 27.7%, Seminole 35.7% - Advantage, Sharks
Penalty kill effectiveness? Durant 95.5%, Seminole 96.0% - Advantage, Sharks
Shots on goal per game? Durant 31.64, Seminole 37.14 – Advantage, Sharks
Shots allowed per game? Durant 17.77, Seminole 19.00 – Advantage, Cougars
As you look at it, sure, the Sharks “lead” in more categories. But in all cases except powerplay, these categories are essentially a coin flip. No doubt, a matchup with the Cougars was anything but a sure thing.
The Cougars, while still one of the relatively new teams in the LHSHL, have made quite the name for themselves, and are becoming one of the perennial powerhouse clubs. After going 10W-10L-2T and finishing in 3rd place in the Modin Division in their first season (2017-2018), under the leadership of Head Coach Todd Comunale, the Cougars have made vast improvements year after year. Going 13W-7L-2T in 18-19 and advancing to the SAHOF State Championships. Followed up with a 12W-4L-6T outing in the 19-20 campaign.
The 2020-2021 season would find the Cougars really settling in and finding their groove. With a great core of seniors that had been with the team since the start, this was a team of destiny. Jordan Putnam, Cougar Captain, and senior forward, was once the Rookie of the Year in the LHSHL, and more recently, was highlighted as a player of the month. Not to be outdone, his brother, Ryan Putnam, sophomore goaltender, was also named as a goalie of the month in the 20-21 campaign. Putnams aside, this team is deep.
8 Cougars have produced 10 or more points this season including defensemen Xander Wise (10G-4A) and Michael Romeo (6G-13A). 5 Cougars have produced 20 or more points including sophomore forward Ethan Carstens (9G-15A). And 3 Cougars produced 30 points or more in the 20-21 campaign including Josh Mckeen (19G-11A), Colin Smargon (19G-13A) and captain Jordan Putnam (29G-20A). Scared yet? What’s more terrifying is the fact that only 3 of these players will be graduating this season. Meaning that 5 of these Cougars will be back for at least 1 more season.
What does this all mean? The Lightning Cup Final would be one for the record books.
Fans piled in (socially distanced, of course), and sat in anticipation as the pregame festivities got underway. 10 minute warm-up, a bit different than the usual 3 minute warm-up the teams are used to. Perhaps it gave teams/players time to shake the nerves before puck drop. Dim the lights, lets meet the players, rise for the anthem, lights back up and lets drop the puck. All of the preparation and hard work has been done. All that’s left to do now is play the game, and let the winner take all.
Seminole would strike early, putting their first shot on goal in the back of the net at the hands of Maxim Thellab (assist James Havens) only 0:42 in to the contest. 1-0 Sharks, EARLY. The Sharks would bite again at 11:59, this time at the hands of Carsan Cabral-Downes (assist Maxim Thellab), and the 1st period would end 2-0 Seminole.
The 2nd period would see the Sharks in the penalty box, and the Cougars on the powerplay for a total of 4 minutes. Sharks goaltender David Stenzel would turn away all shots faced on the PK, and kept the Cougars off the scoreboard. Opportunities wasted, the score remains 2-0 Seminole, and we head to the final period.
Another quick strike by the Sharks makes the score 3-0 Seminole only 0:46 into the 3rd period (goal Maxim Thellab, assist Carsan Cabral-Downes & Nicholas Muschong). Just when you think the Cougars are out, Durant Captain Jordan Putnam put the team on his back, and did what a leader needs to do, he got his team on the board. 10:26 remaining in the contest, and the Cougars are showing signs of life! 3-1 Seminole (assist Michael Romeo & Dante Denney).
The Cougars controlled play for most of the 3rd period, outshooting the Sharks 10-5 in the final period of play. Josh Mckeen found gold for Durant’s 2nd goal (assist Michael Romeo) of the contest with 7:22 remaining. It’s now 3-2 sharks
Stenzel and the Sharks gave it everything they had, but Durant kept finding ways to control the puck, and stay in the Sharks zone. The clock ticking down, Durant kept pressing. With 2:00 remaining, the Cougars pulled their goaltender to get the extra skater. Carsan Cabral-Downes would find a loose puck, and put it in the empty net to seal the deal on the revenge tour and the back-to-back title with 1:21 remaining in the game. The score now 4-2 Seminole.
5… 4…. 3… 2… 1…. THE SEMINOLE SHARKS, ARE BACK-TO-BACK, LIGHTNING CUP CHAMPIONS!
As Shark sticks, gloves and helmets littered the ice in celebration, the crew from Seminole joined elite company on February 17th. Say what you will, but winning back-to-back championships is extremely difficult to do in any sport, at any level. An outstanding season, with an outstanding group of young men and women.
CONGRATULATIONS to the 2020-2021 SEMINOLE SHARKS! You are now and forever, CHAMPIONS!