It was the last game of their season. They just didn't know it yet.
The Lincoln Stars entered March 7th, 2020 with a record of 22-20-5, sitting at fifth place in the Western Conference with 49 points. The previous night rang a familiar tone that had plagued them during the 2019-20 campaign: coming up short after falling behind early, despite a ferocious, last-ditch effort.
Lincoln found themselves down 4-0 on March 6th against the Green Bay Gamblers on the road 13:59 into the second period but responded with three goals of their own. However, it was too little, too late and the Stars fell 6-3 to the Gamblers in the first game of their two-game weekend series. The Stars knew they had to be ready to play as soon as the opening puck dropped on Saturday to salvage a split.
They were, but the scoreboard certainly didn't reflect it.
(All titles are from the 2019-20 season)
Green Bay scored four goals in the first period, separated by 7:43. For the second consecutive night, the Stars were in a four-goal hole. This time, it was after 20 minutes.
Dalton Norris, Stars defenseman: The funny thing was, we didn’t think we played that bad. We went in after the period, we thought our compete level was there and the coaches said we actually played a pretty good period. It was just a couple of tough bounces, some power plays that they had and all of a sudden, it was 4-0.
Chris Michael, Stars Associate Head Coach: I remember a couple of those goals, being like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me right now, our guys deserve better.’ If you watch our start, we were really good in that first period. So to be down 4-0, you’re thinking ‘Wait a minute, hold on, let’s settle these guys down.’
Anthony Mollica, Stars defenseman: In the locker room, I was thinking we needed something to get going because you can’t have everybody with their heads down. We still have two periods left to play and you don’t want to give them any more chances to score. We had to take it to them instead of them being in our zone the entire time. We needed something [to get back in it].
Zach Urdahl, Stars forward: We were all fed up like ‘What’s going on? It’s the second night in a row that this happened.’ We just can’t give up, we have to keep battling back. It’s a deficit that we can overcome.
Christian Sarlo, Stars forward: We were definitely frustrated. It’s early in the game, you can’t let your emotions get the best of you at that time. We went down earlier the night before and couldn’t come back, but we knew we could do it.
Josh Lopina, Stars forward: It definitely was not the position you want to be in ever as a team. We had plenty of comebacks this year. We knew the next goal was huge and all we needed was one to get rolling.
Mollica, in his 26th USHL game, scored his first career goal to get Lincoln on the board at the 6:49 mark of the second period.
Mollica: I saw the breakout out of our zone. Travis (Treloar) took it up, I saw a 3-on-2 opportunity and it looked exactly how we practiced it. He dropped it to Christian and I was wide open on the other side. It was perfectly set up.
It was awesome, it was really exciting. I was happy for everybody out there and it felt good to get our team on the board. It was exciting to see everybody so happy.
Michael: Molly made a great jump as that fourth guy, Sars found him as the late guy coming in. He got it, got it to his hip and boom, it was off that stick in a hurry and in the back of the net. It’s the stuff that we know Anthony is capable of with the way he skates and handles the puck. He should be jumping up and getting those chances. Hopefully, now coming into this year, he’s got some more confidence. When you score in your last game, you feel good about yourself.
Urdahl, who had suffered an upper-body injury the previous night after a hit to the head from Gamblers defenseman Brady Ziemer, scored at the 11:32 mark, cutting Lincoln’s deficit to 4-2.
Urdahl: I don’t remember completely, but I wasn’t really concerned [before the game]. I just took a couple of Advil before and I was perfectly fine.
It was pretty great. We already had a little momentum going and I was able to get one with a lot of my family there in my home state. That building holds a special place in my heart, so it was a good moment for the team. Being down by three goals is a lot different from being down by two goals so I think it gave us a big boost.
Shortly before the second period ended, Stars forward Brad Morrissey fought Ziemer, electrifying the Stars bench even more.
Sarlo: That’s just who Brad is; he’ll go out and stick up for his teammates. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting Brad to go out and fight someone there. I remember Coach Mikes came in after that and made sure all the guys heard how great of a fight that was. That was a major turning point in the game.
Michael: It was masterfully done. We’re going to miss Brad a lot. Maine is very lucky to have him coming in next fall as a freshman. He’s a little bit old-school. He knew right then and there that we were starting to build a little bit of momentum and if he goes at a guy who took a run at one of his brothers the night before, he’s going to build that momentum. Then, to do it about ten feet in front of our bench was the best part. You can see the guys get all riled up. It’s funny, we talk about the hockey gods and if you do things the right way, you’ll get rewarded.
Norris: It was unreal and a big move by him to step up.
Mollica: That got everyone riled up.
In the early minutes of the third period, Sarlo notched his USHL-leading 14th power-play goal, bringing the Stars to within one. Before Sarlo’s PPG, Lincoln was 0-for-5 on the man-advantage in the game.
Sarlo: I wouldn’t say it’s a must-score, but we weren't scoring on the power play, so it was obviously frustrating. You’re thinking that if you don’t score on this opportunity, you’ll only have to ramp it up later. There was definitely urgency on that power play.
[Josh Groll] came down, so I just saw him skating down and I knew that I had the shot. We had talked about it in between periods. I told him I’d go backdoor and if he had the shot ‘rip it,’ if not, just find me backdoor. He gave me a really nice pass; I got a little lucky. I think it went off my skate, but it went in so that’s what matters.
Less than four minutes after Sarlo’s goal, Norris would tally his first in the USHL, tying the game at four goals apiece.
Norris: I had a little bit of a lane coming down the wall. My initial thought was just 'jump in the play' and either throw it off the pad or I saw Groller’s stick back-door. Honestly, I was shooting for his stick, but when I came down the side it rolled on me and got a good bounce off their guy and it went in. The celebration and the video speak for itself. It was pure emotion; you’re waiting for it all year and it happened to take until the last game. The guys were super pumped for me and it was a special moment.
Michael: He came to me about two weeks prior and he was frustrated. I remember telling him ‘Dalts, you’re going to score when we least expect it but when we need it the most.’ Sure enough, there it is. It’s a 4-3 hockey game, he comes down the wall … it’s probably the ugliest goal he’s ever scored in his career, but that’s his first USHL goal at a time where our team needed it desperately. Boom, it’s 4-4.
Urdahl: Dalts is my roommate so we'd mentioned that he hadn’t got his first goal yet. He wanted it so bad, he was trying hard to get it but not trying too hard that that’s all he was focusing on. To be able to see him get it, especially the last period of the season … we didn’t know that at the time, but it was really cool to see him get one; you can see how excited he was after he scored. It was something a long time going for him and I think everyone was happy that he ended up getting it. Same thing with Molly, too. Both of them work so hard and to see it pay off for them to go get one, especially in that game, is really cool.
Sarlo: I lived with Molly, so it was cool to see him get that first goal. And with Dalts, I know that was a monkey off his back. It’s definitely exciting to see guys get their first and especially in such a big game.
Mollica: I think it was more exciting seeing Dalton score, too. He’s been there for a lot longer than I had. He deserved that goal. You see on the video that he looked really happy for me when I scored; he was all excited jumping all over me. He’s been patient with it and he definitely deserved that.
Norris: It’s crazy. I didn’t say it out loud, but when Molly scored, it was in the back of my head that I was the only guy in the team that hadn’t scored yet. The way that it worked out with it being the last game and Molly and I get our first ones, it was pretty special.
With just over seven minutes to go in regulation, Lopina fired a shot from the high slot that eluded Gamblers goaltender Gavin Enright to give the Stars their first lead of the weekend.
Lopina: Once we tied it 4-4, we did not want to stop. We had all the momentum and we just had a feeling we would get another one. Scoring the fifth goal was a great team effort and all the boys were pumped up. We had a long bus ride home so we wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
The Stars held on for the 5-4 victory, splitting the weekend series with Green Bay. Five days later, on March 12th, the USHL season was postponed due to COVID-19.
On March 18th, the season was cancelled, preventing the Stars from making a run at the Clark Cup.
Mollica: It was awesome to end on a game like that, but we all wanted to continue and go on a playoff run. It was exciting to come back … it was one of the best games I’ve ever played in. It was definitely a good, solid game to remember and I’ll remember it for a while.
Norris: Looking back on the season, we had our fair share of ups-and-downs just like every other team. But for us to go out like that, it was almost like a perfect way. Obviously, no one saw the end of the season coming the way it did. The fact that we came back from a 4-0 deficit after one, we had a bunch of different guys chip in, that’s just how it was all year. We had young guys chip in and our big leaders like Lopes, Brock [Bremer], [Matt Barbolini], Trav and Sarlo did, too. We had a really resilient group.
Sarlo: A couple of days after, all of us were saying that if we go out on a win like that, it’s pretty fitting. The whole season, we had been facing adversity and coming back in games. To come back from a four-goal deficit in the last game of the year, that was one of my favorite parts of the season, for sure.
Urdahl: I think it capped off how the season went overall. We were up-and-down a lot of the year. It was a great way to end the year, looking back on it. That was our group all year. We were down, we were never out of it and we never gave up.
Lopina: Obviously, the way the season ended was not ideal. We had such a special group who was only getting better each day. We would have been a good playoff-contending team. But we wouldn't have wanted it to end any other way. We battled as brothers until the end and came out on top.
Michael: The number one characteristic of that group was that they didn’t quit. It didn’t matter the situation. We were extremely proud of them as a staff after that game. That was the game where we felt like we had something special here. This is not a team I would want to coach or play against in the playoffs. To be told five days later that it’s time to pack up and go home … it sucks. It will always suck because of the type of kids they were and the type of team that formed and bonded to become.