Hat Tricks' resiliency sparked 2023 championship run

by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

Five times the Danbury Hat Tricks faced elimination in the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs. Five times they dug down as deep as possible to win a game with their season hanging in the balance.

And that included the decisive Game 5 of the Final against the Carolina Thunderbirds, when Michael Marchesan scored in overtime to deliver Danbury its first FPHL championship.

“In the moment when the puck went in, I couldn’t move,” Hat Tricks coach and general manager Billy McCreary recalled. “I was just so proud of the players. That group had worked so hard and so long … all of us coaches on the bench were hugging, crying. I wanted that moment to last forever.”

What made the moment even sweeter was the incredible adversity Danbury overcame in their postseason run. After finishing first overall in the League with 129 points and a sensational 44-7-5 record during the regular season, the Hat Tricks swept the Elmira Mammoth in the first round of the playoffs, winning 7-2 and 7-1.

They did so despite McCreary admitting to some early jitters on his part.

“Going into this playoff, I was pretty nervous because this was my first-ever playoff as a coach,” he explained. “I’m so thankful we had the group, the players and staff, we did. Going into that first Elmira game I couldn’t keep any food down, I was so nervous. But once we got playing, I was just so confident in that group and settled down.”

The second round, though, began with a stunning 6-1 loss in Binghamton against the Black Bears. In a best-of-3 series, the Hat Tricks immediately had their backs against the wall.

Playing in front of an electric crowd at Danbury Arena, the Hat Tricks never trailed in Game 2, a 5-2 victory when Jonny Ruiz scored two goals and Brian Wilson locked things down with 33 saves. Danbury staved off elimination again in Game 3 when rookie Brendan Dowler broke a 1-1 tie at 8:42 of the third period in a thrilling 3-1 series-clinching victory.

“It all started with Billy,” Ruiz said. “He always talks about staying in the moment, owning that moment and taking care of what’s in front of you. That’s what we did. It started at the top and trickled all the way down and we were feeding off each other, and we got it done.”

With the stakes higher, the Hat Tricks were again pushed to the brink against the Thunderbirds in the best-of-5 Commissioner’s Cup Final. Danbury lost the first two games on the road in Carolina, meaning they had to win three straight on home ice to save their season and secure their first championship.

Daunting odds against such an elite opponent. But the Hat Tricks’ collective confidence never wavered.

“Going into (the final three games), I don’t think any one of us thought Carolina is going to be hoisting the Cup on our ice,” Ruiz said.

The Hat Tricks trailed 1-0 early in the first period and 2-1 midway through the second but scored the last five goals for a 6-2 victory in Game 3. Daniel McKitrick broke out with three points (two goals, one assist) and Dowler scored another game winner.

Wilson, the FPHL co-goalie of the year, was the star of Game 4. He was sensational with 51 saves as Danbury held on for a scintillating 4-3 win to even the series. But it wasn’t a one-man show. It was a team effort featuring a slew of blocked shots by Xavier Abdella and Johnny Macdonald, two goals from Jacob Ratcliffe and a pair of assists from veteran Gordy Bonnel.

Again, with no margin for error, the Hat Tricks took leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in Game 5. But the Thunderbirds tied the game a second time at 14:05 of the third period, meaning the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup would be decided in overtime.

“We were ready for the moment,” McCreary explained. “The players were so prepared and we (the coaches) were just enjoying the show they were putting on. They’re a resilient group and ended up getting the job done.”

Ruiz was forced from the game after absorbing a blow to the head early in the second period. Still, the captain was an inspiration, remaining on the bench, bleeding from a major gash, but intensely engaged.

And then at 11:58 of OT, Marchesan buried a rebound of Abdella’s initial shot. In their fifth playoff elimination game of the spring and 10th postseason contest overall, the Danbury Hat Tricks were Commissioner’s Cup champions.

“I admit, I’m an emotional person, but this was just overwhelming,” said Bonnel, who sought out Ruiz and McCreary during the on-ice postgame bedlam.

Those three had been there from the beginning in 2019. Through high and lows that included a season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic and another lost completely to COVID-19, and five must-win games in these playoffs. It was enough to make grown men cry.

“I was on the ice celebrating and was like ‘Where’s Billy? Where’s Jonny?’ This had been the moment we’ve been dreaming of since Year 1” Bonnel explained. “I think I cried four times in that celebration. Once, seeing my girlfriend. The second, seeing my father. And then the other two? Seeing Billy and Jonny.”

Ruiz can relate.

“I still get choked up thinking about it,” the captain shared. “Look at what we started. Look at where we are now. We reached the mountaintop together.”

Photos: Chris Rutsch