Longtime St. Thomas Academy co-coach Greg Vanelli might have said it best following his team’s 1-0 victory over rival Hill-Murray on Saturday.

“Sometimes your best offense is a good defense,” Vanelli said. “Tonight, our puck possession was strong … it helps everything when you have the puck a lot.”

Indeed, the Cadets' puck possession was fervent, as was the cycling in the offensive zone and movement back to the defensemen that generated a steady stream of shots from the point.

By game’s end, St. Thomas Academy had worked its way to a hard-fought victory in another one-goal game, the 10th time this season the Cadets have been involved in a contest decided by a goal or less.

“We were committed to doing the little things right,” senior forward Billy Jerry said. “Blocking shots, winning the battles and back-checking were important for us as a team. And, also, Atticus has been huge for us.”

Atticus Kelly pitched the shutout between the pipes for the Cadets (14-5-5, 8-2-1), ranked No. 15 in Class 2A by the Let’s Play Hockey poll. St. Thomas Academy has five shutouts in its last six games, and Kelly has four of them.

The Cadets scored the game’s only goal in the final minute of the first period when the cycling created an opportunity. With 25 seconds remaining, senior captain Jason Smallidge took a puck from the corner from Willie Reim and made a nifty move around a Pioneers’ forward. Smallidge then quickly fired a wrist shot into the top shelf for the game’s decisive goal.

“It was a big-time move to make that play,” Vanelli said. “It’s a very good move by a very good player, one of the best defenseman in the state.”

Saturday night’s win over No. 11-2A Hill-Murray (14-7-2, 9-1-1) levels the season series after the Pioneers prevailed with a 1-0 victory on Jan. 16. Since then, St. Thomas Academy hasn't lost a game, with five wins and two ties mixed in.

Things have been good for the Cadets as they continue to mature.

“We are a young team, and at the beginning of the year, the sophomores and freshmen were just getting our feet wet on varsity,” Kelly said. “But as time has gone on, new people have stepped into new roles, and we’re getting better as a team.”

A common thread running through St. Thomas Academy's successes this season has been a commitment to defense. At times, the Cadets have been deficient in their goal production, and despite high shot totals, it’s been defense and goaltending that has carried them.

“We used to try to make offense out of offense when it wasn’t there,” Jerry said. “Now, we’re beginning to understand that by being sound defensively, then that will generate offensive opportunities. We try to take care of our own (defensive) end and be responsible with our play, and then we feel we can turn that into opportunities going the other way.”

On average, the St. Thomas Academy is scoring a shade less than four goals per game (3.96), though they are allowing just 1.62, which puts them in elite company with other top metro teams. Against Hill-Murray, that trend continued.

“For some reason this year, we haven’t scored a lot of goals, but we don’t give up a lot of goals, so there have been a lot of one-goal games,” Vanelli said. “It’s nice to come out on the right end of this one. With 40 shots, we’d like to have more, but we kept our tempo up the entire game and it worked.”

Team defense, high energy and winning races to the puck has helped make the Cadets a consistent team and probable top seed in Class 2A, Section 3.

With one game remaining on the road against defending Class 2A state champ Lakeville North on Tuesday, St. Thomas Academy is in sound shape to make another run at the Class 2A tournament.

“With two games to go, to beat a real quality team like Hill-Murray is a nice way to enter the final week of the season before the playoffs,” Greg Vanelli said.

For the Cadets, the message has always been to get better each day and peak at the right time.

“We didn’t start the season so hot, but that’s not as important as how you finish it,” Jerry said. “Going into the playoffs, I like the direction we are headed in. It feels like we are playing our best hockey when it counts the most.”

Metro East rivals St Thomas and Hill-Murray getting heated after the whistle Saturday at the St. Thomas Academy Ice Rink. Photo by Korey McDermott

First Report

St. Thomas Academy worked its way to a 1-0 home victory over Hill-Murray Saturday night as the Cadets extended their unbeaten streak to seven games.

St. Thomas Academy(14-5-5) recorded the game's only goal with 25 seconds remaining in the opening period when senior defenseman Jason Smallidge pushed the Cadets out front.

Working its offense in the Hill-Murray(14-7-2) zone, St. Thomas Academy cycled the puck back to the point and onto the stick of Smallidge, who made a nifty move around a Pioneers' forward and into the slot, where he rifled a wrist shot into the top shelf just under the crossbar.

The Cadets, ranked No. 15 in Class 2A in the Let's Play Hockey poll, outshot No. 11-2A Hill-Murray 40-28, with Atticus Kelly notching the shutout between the pipes for St. Thomas Academy.

Pioneers' goalie John Eger finished with 39 saves.

Hill-Murray goaltender John Eger stopped 39 of 40 St. Thomas Academy shots, but took the 1-0 loss against the Cadets. Photo by Korey McDermott

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