Before Hill-Murray and St. Thomas Academy (STA) go its separate ways into the section playoffs, two important matters still needed to be settled.
One was the Classic Suburban Conference (CSC) championship and the other, bragging rights in a season finale that pitted No. 1 versus No. 1 in the state rankings.
On the road, the Pioneers were able to cap off an undefeated 14-0-0 CSC season with a 4-2 victory against the Cadets at the St. Thomas Ice Arena on Feb. 19.
“This was a perfect game for us to have,” Pioneers forward Ben Bahe said. “A fast paced game against a great team will help us get ready for sections.”
Bahe had a goal and two assists to add to his Mr. Hockey resume. His goal was the game-winner, using his shin pad to deflect a J.D. Cotroneo shot from the blue line that found its way through the five-hole of Cadets goalie David Zevnik with 6 minutes, 32 seconds left in the third period.
“I think it hit off my shin,” Bahe said. “Not really sure, but a goal is a goal and doesn’t really matter.”
There was a storm that Hill-Murray had to navigate through in the second period before Bahe’s game winner.
The Pioneers held a 1-0 lead after Ryan Holler’s tip in from a Travis Wood blast. To begin the second, STA came out firing on all cylinders and eventually took a 2-1 lead.
In a span of five minutes the Cadets got goals from Andrew Commers and Mike Ferriera to capture a lead against its rival. They had another opportunity with a power play after Ferriera's goal, too.
“We had to do anything we could to get momentum after the first period and did just about everything we could,” Cadets coach Greg Vanelli said. “I didn’t think we had a great first period, but the middle of the second was about as good as you could have against a team like Hill-Murray.”
What has been a trademark to their success, the Pioneers remained calm and were not frazzled by a sudden change of momentum.
A team full of veterans that have played in the state tournament and numerous close games waited for its moment and got it from sophomore Jake Guentzel, who tied the game with yet another tip in goal for the Pioneers.
Bahe and Holler scored in the third and Hill-Murray did not allow STA to get too many chances in the final period for a comeback.
“We’re fortunate to have a lot of experience in this locker room,” Holler said. “Have a lot of guys that have been here.”
“We have 14 guys that have lived it once and eight more that have done it a couple times,” Pioneers coach Bill Lechner said. “We have learned together that you can’t get too high or too low. Just stay calm.”
Experience and patient once again paid off for the Pioneers. In a game with all the build up, they did not take this game as a chance to show off. It was all business, even with the likelihood they would still have the No. 1 seed in Section 4, Class 2A no matter the result.
“It was a battle tonight,” Holler said. “We knew there was a lot at stake and they were going to come out hard and they did. We had to match them and were able to find a way to get a goal in the third to win it.
“It was great to come into this building and get a win. Not the easiest place to get a win, but we got the job done”
With only two losses in conference play, both to Hill-Murray, the Cadets remain upbeat and did not hang their heads after the game.
“Losses can build character,” Vanelli said. “We played a pretty good game against one of the best teams in the state and we didn’t come through. As a team, we have some time to build off of this and get ready for sections and this was a good game to have right before that.”
With its second consecutive CSC championship, Hill-Murray has had plenty of victories in conference play of late, but no defeats is rare and something Lechner praised about his team.
“To go undefeated in conference, I don’t care how good you are, it’s a challenge,” Lechner said. “Doesn’t matter how good your conference is. To get up every night to play and to play well is challenging and I am proud of our team for that.”
There was more talent on the ice between Hill-Murray and STA than most conferences have altogether.
However, the highlight reel goals often associated with highly skilled talent was the only thing missing between the two No. 1’s.
If there was anything that could make up for it, it would have to be sound goaltending and it showed up.
With players that could snipe a corner as easy as breathing, Hill-Murray’s Tim Shaughnessy and STA’s David Zevnik had to be sharp from the drop of the puck.
Both were and made life difficult for their opposition.
Hill-Murray scored three of its goals by deflections to get the puck past Zevnik, who finished with 25 saves.
Shaughnessy had great positioning, was superb with his angles and constantly was out of his crease, challenging shooters.
“Goaltending tonight was fantastic,” Lechner said. “They didn’t give much to shoot at and it took some hard work to get goals.”
Bahe had two breakaways, one early in the first period and those would have been helpful, potentially could have created some breathing room against Hill-Murray’s conference rival.
Zevnik stopped him on both occasions, something that brought a little smile to his face even after a tough loss.
“I like to get those sometimes,” he said. “Maybe not that early, but I still like to face breakaways. It gets you in the game.”
“Both goalies played great and they have a sophomore over there that is just going to get better,” Bahe added. “Myself and my teammates had some chances that we have to bury in sections, but overall, the goalies were outstanding.”
After the Cadets took the lead on Mike Ferriera’s goal, Hill-Murray went back to throwing the puck on net from anywhere on the ice. It helped create scoring chances and kept the puck in STA’s zone for most of the third period.
Zevnik stopped everything he saw and was not at fault on any of the Pioneers goals.
“I thought he was excellent,” Vanelli said. “Three goals on deflections, there isn’t much you can do. Maybe we could do a better job covering their defensemen on the blue line, like what happened on their third goal.”
There are the pretty goals that the highly skilled players are capable of doing for their respective teams, The elite teams find other ways to find the back of the net.
“If you look at it, eventually a game is going to come down to one goal,” Lechner said. “Sometimes, you just have to keep it simple. It may be a little ugly for the fans, but you just have to throw it on the goalie and see what happens.”
“It’s playoff time and that’s how pucks get into the net,” Holler said. “This time of the year, a goal is a goal. It doesn’t matter who scores it. It’s about the team this time of the year.”
Ben Bahe had a goal and two assists for Hill-Murray in a 4-2 win against St. Thomas Academy in the Classic Suburban Conference clincher between the No. 1-ranked teams in both classes at St. Thomas Ice Arena on Feb. 19.
Ryan Holler scored twice for the Pioneers, including an empty net goal to ice the game with seven seconds left to ice the game.
Jake Guentzel also scored for Hill-Murray when he redirected a Bob Bruski shot past Cadets goalie David Zevnik in the second period.
Zevnik finished with 25 saves for the Cadets and the sophomore was outstanding between the Pipes.
His counterpart, Tim Shaughnessy, was stable in net as well with 23 stops to help the Pioneers to a perfect 14-0-0 record in the CSC.
Andrew Commers got STA on the board in the second to tie the game at one. Mike Ferriera almost scored from the exact location to give the Cadets a lead before Guentzel's goal.
Hill-Murray finishes the regular season 21-3-1 (14-0-0) and will wait for the Section 4, Class 2A seeds to be released.
STA completed the regular season 19-6-0 (12-2-0). It will receive its Section 4, Class A seed on Feb. 20.
The Cadets only had two losses this season in conference play, both to Hill-Murray.
1. Ben Bahe, Hill-Murray
It could have been an even bigger night for the Mr. Hockey finalist having two breakaways that he didn't convert, but Bahe was able to use his shin to tally the game-winning goal in the third period. He had two assists, the second coming on Ryan Holler's empty net goal, where Bahe was able to get the puck out of the Pioneers zone late in the game and deliver a pass to his teammate to ice the game.
2. Ryan Holler, Hill-Murray
One of the senior leaders came up big with two goals for the Pioneers. His first, a deflection in front of the Cadets net gave Hill-Murray a big 1-0 lead in the first. Holler finished off St. Thomas Academy with an empty net goal with seven seconds left. It was an easy goal, but well deserved for a strong effort by Holler, who was solid at both ends of the rink.
3. David Zevnik, St. Thomas Academy
If this is what the Cadets have in net for the rest of the postseason and the next two seasons, they are going to be sitting pretty. Despite the loss, Zevnik had 25 saves. There wasn't one goal by Hill-Murray that beat him clean. Every goal was a deflection. If Zevnik had a good eye on it, he was going to stop the puck. An outstanding effort by the sophomore and he received a lot of praise from the Pioneers after the game.