No. 1-ranked PREP made its first-ever appearance in the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game one to remember, but they needed overtime to survive.
Senior Nick Lamberg (Elk Grove) scored the game-winning goal 80 seconds into OT Sunday afternoon, March 19, at the United Center as PREP defeated Chicago North 4-3 to win its first-ever state championship (Combined Division).
“I picked up the puck (behind the net) and just fired it, and it went in. It was a dream come true; this is unreal,” said Lamberg, named Player Of The Game. “I threw it (toward) the net, which is what we talked about before going on the ice for overtime.
“I can’t describe this feeling; we’ve been working for this since last March when we got eliminated. That’s what fueled us, what motivated,” for the win.
A year ago, PREP surrendered a 1-0 lead to Wheaton West in the state tournament final four. “The person who scored the game-winning goal today probably took (last season’s) loss the hardest,” said PREP head coach Nick Panos. “From that moment, he said, ‘Coach, it’s not going to happen next year.”
Lamberg was PREP’s go-to forward all season, leading the team with 28 goals, 26 assists in 28 IHSHL North-Central games. His 54 points led the league.
“He’s been outstanding all season and as soon as he cut (into) the circle, I knew it was going to go in,” Panos said.
Senior William Behls (Rolling Meadows) added: “No one would shoot that puck except (Lamberg); he’s got an incredible hockey sense and I had a feeling it was going in.”
Behls was just as key for PREP (53-1-6) to stop Chicago North, a mix of players from Lane Tech, Taft, Northside Prep, Lakeview, Von Steuben, Lycée Français, Amundsen and DePaul Prep. He assisted Lamberg at 7:34 of the first period to tie the game, 1-1. He also assisted on one of the two scored by senior Matthew Melachrinakis (Prospect).
“That was the most unbelievable experience,” Behls said. “All of the hard work, going back to my childhood, paid off in the biggest game I’m ever going to play in.
“It was an unbelievable feeling.”
Chicago North (19-11-5) opened the scoring about five minutes into the first period when Shane Looney converted a one-timer, assisted by Emmett Heneghan past PREP goalie Michael Delea.
PREP scored three unanswered and took a 3-1 lead. Chicago North didn’t surrender.
“I think the nerves kicked in right when the third period started. We were 15 minutes away from the win and just played nervous; we didn’t play our game in the third,” Lamberg said.
Nick Scavone scored a rebound goal, cutting it to 3-2, and Augustine Watts sidestepped two PREP defenders, then went upper corner for the tying goal.
“They played hard start to finish; they really put the pressure on us, so we had to adjust,” Melachrinakis said. “This was the best day of my life. I grew up going to the (high school) state championship, watching these games. Now to win it, this means everything.
“It doesn’t feel real; it hasn’t set in yet.”
Lamberg said Melachrinakis’ two goals “were unreal.”
PREP’s win was its fifth this season over Chicago North, completing the season sweep. This was the most difficult victory of the five.
“Everything we wanted to do against them, they were doing to us. We didn’t have much time to make plays; they were all over us,” Panos said.
Chicago North head coach Kevin Dolan, in his first season with the co-op club, said he was proud of his team. “It’s been a heckuva year for them,” Dolan said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get the result that we wanted, but we definitely showed the character of this team, especially coming back from the 3-1 deficit.”