KEARNEY — Tri-City’s season ended in unexpected fashion.
The Storm rolled through the regular season to claim the Anderson Cup, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, and swept Des Moines in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
That success didn’t carry into the conference final, though. They ran into a Sioux Falls team that was opportunistic and stingy defensively.
Stampede winger Brian Chambers snuck a shot past Storm netminder Isaiah Saville with 51 seconds left in Friday’s Game 3 in Sioux Falls. It was the final blow for the Storm, who the Stampede swept in the best-of-five series to advance to the Clark Cup Final.
Stunned. Speechless. Defeated. The Storm boarded the 56-seat 2000 Prevost motor coach for the nearly 300-mile journey back to Kearney with their championship dreams shattered.
Although it wasn’t how they envisioned their playoff run ending, the Storm had a historic season.
"For me, it was probably the most proud I’ve ever been of a team," coach Anthony Noreen said. "We did every single thing we were supposed to do to win that game. For whatever reason the puck didn’t go in, and for whatever reason it went in our net. That’s hockey.
"But they left everything out there, and that’s all you could ask for. That game ended, and we could all look in the mirror to know we put our best foot forward. Sometimes it just doesn’t work."
It’s not unusual for the Anderson Cup winner to fall short of winning the Clark Cup championship. Since the USHL earned Tier I status in 2002, the Storm are the 11th team in 17 years to fail to win both trophies in the same season.
It also happened to the Storm in 2004.
Although this year’s team is part of that trend, they had numerous accomplishments.
They tallied 45 regular-season victories and scored 232 goals, both team records. They won five league awards and have 25 players committed to Division I programs. They also could have at least five players selected in June’s NHL draft.
The Storm thrived and remained consistent throughout the 62-game season due to unforeseen contributions from a variety of players.
One player that stands out to Noreen is Ronnie Attard. The third-year defenseman displayed remarkable growth to solidify himself as a draft prospect for June, after all 31 teams passed on him in the seven-round draft last year.
He totaled 11 goals and nine assists in his first two years. An enhanced confidence played a large part in him posting 30 goals, 34 assists and a league-high plus-48 rating in 48 games this season. He set a new mark for goals scored in a season by a defenseman in league history, while his 64 points are the highest by a defenseman in a single season since the league earned Tier I status in 2002.
His success earned him league player of the year and defenseman of the year honors.
"I would argue the best single season in the history of the league," Noreen said. "I don’t know how anyone could say anything different."
Attard is part of a long list of players who weren’t highly regarded before joining the Storm. On the Storm’s top two lines, four players fit that description.
Attard was a last-round pick, defenseman Elias Rosen, a Sweden native, called Noreen out of the blue and asked to try out for the team, winger Connor McMenamin was a player to be named later in a trade, and winger Ian Murphy was a late-round selection.
Those four players, along with numerous others, flourished under Noreen and his staff this season.
The culmination of work ethic and team chemistry propelled the Storm to the greatest season in team history.
"They came together as a group," Noreen said. "They bought in, they worked, they had a ton of fun, they made brothers for life, and in doing that, they became a great team."