St. Thomas Academy's Alex Johnson (19) scored three goals in the Cadets' win over Totino-Grace. Photo by Jennifer Weichert
No. 1-ranked (Class 1A) St. Thomas Academy had a 15-2-1 record going into its matchup with Section 4A foe No. 3 Totino-Grace.
With everything seeming to be smooth sailing for the Cadets in their final season in Class 1A before moving up to 2A, why would they make a change now?
In order to provide a scoring spark to hopefully match its defensive prowess, St. Thomas Academy made a change in its line sheet.
Instead of Henry Hart's name sketched in with the line of sophomores Tom Novak and Christiano Versich, senior Alex Johnson was plugged in.
Johnson made the most of the switch by scoring three goals for the Cadets in their 6-1 victory against Totino-Grace on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at the St. Thomas Ice Arena.
"We wanted to try to put a big scoring line out there and tried it in our previous game against North St. Paul, and we scored eight goals," Cadets' co-head coach Greg Vannelli said. "I wanted to see how it would do against a really good opponent, and it seemed to work again."
Not only did Johnson benefit from the recent switch, but Hart did as well.
Just 51 seconds into the first period Hart scored his 11th goal of the season.
After Charlie Miller tied the score for the Eagles, Johnson came right back when his new linemate Novak dished him a pass from the left corner to the slot.
Johnson took his time and unloaded a heavy wrist shot that first hit the post before going into the net to give St. Thomas Academy a 2-1 lead.
Johnson's chemistry with his other linemate was more impressive.
Early in the second period Johnson picked up a loose puck at the Cadets' blue line and started to cruise down the left-wing boards for a two-on-one rush with Versich.
Johnson softly slid a pass over to Versich and he was in alone on Eagles' goalie Michael Larson.
Instead of taking a shot he saw Johnson crashing to the net and returned the pass to him where he was able to tap in a one-timer for an easy goal.
"I think the shot was there, but the pass I got was a bit behind me," Versich said. "When I got control I could have shot, but Alex (Johnson) was breaking and the right play was to get it to him and he just buried it."
The Cadets' new line connected again early in the third period to complete Johnson's hat trick.
Novak got the puck up ice to Versich, who fed a perfect saucer pass to Johnson breaking to the net.
Once Johnson caught the pass, quickly shifted to his right and fired a shot into a wide open net to beat Larson once again.
"It was really good to see Johnson get a hat trick," Cadets' defenseman Jack Dougherty said. "I think him being on that line worked out good for us these last few games and hopefully it will keep going."
The new line combined for seven points against the Eagles and 13 in the past two games.
Johnson had six goals before the switch. After two games with his new linemates that total stands at 10.
"I think the new lines are working well, and I get to play with two really good sophomores (Novak and Versich)," Johnson said. "I really enjoy playing with them and these last two games have gone really well for us."
The Johnson-Novak- Verisch line did what Totino-Grace could not.
The Eagles had just 16 shots on goal but still had opportunities to pull closer.
Derek Lodermeier had a breakaway that he did not convert. Lodermeier and T.J. Roo failedto score on a 2-on-1 in the second period.
"That was a big difference in the game," Eagles' coach Mark Loahr said. "We didn't score on our chances and they did. We had two-on-ones and did not score. They had a couple and they did."
As good as St. Thomas Academy was offensively against Totino-Grace, it again proved it is one of the best defensive teams in the state.
For the 14th time this season the Cadets held an opponent to one goal or less. They are 14-0-0 in those games.
St. Thomas Academy has a combined goals-against-average of 1.32 and No. 1 goaltender David Zevnik has a .943 save percentage.
"That is where they are just so good," Totino-Grace coach Mark Loahr said. "They are big back there and take care of their own end. If you do get shot on them and their goalie gives up a rebound, they are back and clear the puck out right away.
"You need to capitalize on them, but they do make it really hard to do so."
The Cadets have had scoring power to match any other team in the state en route to winning the last two state Class 1A championships. They are not offensively incapable this season, but the specialty this season has been team defense, which has carried them to the top of the Class 1A rankings.
"We know that defense wins championships here and have to take care of your own end," Dougherty said. "There is a lot of pride in how we play back there."
With another one of its final tests before the playoffs complete, the Cadets have put together an impressive defensive resume.
Traditional offensive powers have not been able to have much success against them.
Even Shattuck-St. Mary's was only able to score two goals against St. Thomas Academy.
The Cadets allowed one goal to No. 2-ranked (Class 1A) Breck twice this season, both times victories by identical 2-1 scores.
They beat Classic Suburban Conference rival and No. 1 Hill-Murray 2-1 at home on Dec. 15.
In the Schwan Cup Gold Division St. Thomas Academy won another 2-1 contest against No. 6 Edina.
On consecutive games it shutdown No. 3 Benilde-St. Margaret's 3-1 and No. 10 (Class 1A) Duluth Marshall 4-1.
"We have played a tough schedule and to see our team play so well defensively has been rewarding," St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Greg Vannelli said. "It can be hard to get young players to play so well in their own zone, but we have a group of guys that really care and take pride in it."
"They have beaten some great 2A teams this year with that defense," Loahr said. "With the way they play back there, they could probably even be playing up there right now with it."
Alex Johnson scored three goals for No. 1-ranked (Class 1A) St. Thomas Academy as the Cadets defeated No. 3 Totino-Grace 6-1 on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at the St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights.
Henry Hart put the Cadets up 1-0 just 51 seconds into the first period with a wrist shot that beat Eagles' goalie Michael Larson.
Charlie Miller answered for Totino-Grace on a shot from the blue line that deflected off of a St. Thomas Academy defenseman and into the net.
Johnson scored his first goal just 1 minute, 32 seconds later when he received a pass from Tom Novak in the high slot and fired a hard wrist shot that hit the post and went in.
Dan McManus gave the Cadets a 3-1 lead when he took the puck from behind the net and slid a low shot through traffic and behind Larson.
Johnson put away his second goal of the night on a two-on-one rush with linemate Christiano Versich. Johnson first slid a pass over to Versich, who appeared ready to take a shot on Larson, but elected to pass back to Johnson, who rushed to the net and tapped in his second goal.
Versich connected with Johnson again in the third. With Johnson breaking to the net, Versich floated a perfect saucer pass to Johnson, who was able to hold onto it and deke to his right to beat Larson for his hat trick.
The Cadets closed out the scoring when Peter Tufto deflected a shot from Jack Dougherty at the point.
St. Thomas Academy finished with a 40-16 shot advantage.
Totino-Grace drops to 14-3-1 and remains busy this week. The Eagles travel to St. Louis Park on Friday, Feb. 1 and host No. 5 (Class 1A) Hermantown on Saturday, Feb. 2.
St. Thomas Academy improves to 16-2-1 and resumesClassic Suburban Conference play when it visits South St. Paul on Thursday, Jan. 31 at Wakota Arena.
1. Alex Johnson, St. Thomas Academy
Johnson has benefited nicely with the line shuffling the Cadets have done lately. With a hat trick, he is the easy No. 1 star. His first goal proved to be the game-winner on an impressive wrist shot from the slot that caught some iron before going in.
2. Christiano Versich, St. Thomas Academy
There is no selfish play from this sophomore, who made two highlight-reel passes to Johnson and helped his senior linemate earn the hat trick. On Versich's first assist to Johnson he could have shot off a 2-on-1 rush, but elected to slide a pass over to Johnson, who tapped in his second goal. Versich's second assist to Johnson was even more impressive. With Johnson breaking to the net, Versich tossed a saucer pass to him and Johnson took care of the rest.
3. Jack Dougherty, St. Thomas Academy
The Cadets' defense has been strong all season, and Dougherty has been one of the anchors on the blue line. He has all the tools -- size, strength, skating, stickhandling -- and uses them to near perfection. St. Thomas Academy only allowed 16 shots on goal and Dougherty was a major contributing factor to that statistic.