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Saint Ignatius comes back to top Brother Rice

By Curt Herron, 02/12/22, 11:00AM CST


OAK LAWN - A lot of teams would get demoralized if they allowed a goal in the opening minute and trailed by two goals less than 10 minutes into a road game in a playoff series.

But while no one really wants to be in that position, when a squad has experienced several similar situations and overcame them throughout a successful season, then facing an early 2-0 deficit might not be that big of a deal.

That proved to be the case on Sunday in the second game of the quarterfinal matchup in the Chicago Catholic Hockey League's Kennedy Cup playoffs between top-seed Saint Ignatius College Prep and eighth-seed Brother Rice, at the Oak Lawn Ice Arena.

The Crusaders took a 1-0 lead in the opening minute and increased their advantage to 2-0 a little over nine minutes into the game to energize their large crowd of supporters.

But the Wolfpack responded with a goal late in the first period and then scored twice in short order in the latter stages of the second period to move in front for good and they added three more goals in the final period to help them capture a 6-2 victory that wrapped up the series in two games.

The victory sends coach Matt Smith's squad into a semifinal matchup against either fourth-seed Carmel Catholic or fifth-seed St. Rita of Cascia, who play the rubber game of their three-game playoff on Saturday.

Smith was recognized this season with the Bill Peluse Award, which goes to the league's coach of the year. The team was the recipient of the Jim Misiora President's Cup, which goes to the squad that places first in regular season play.

Saint Ignatius, which followed up on an 18-2 regular season with a 6-0 win in its playoff opener, received a goal and an assist from Corbin Klein, Jack Perreault and Joey Velarde while Joey Giunta, J.P. Koehl and Alex Lezotte also scored goals and Connor Kennedy, Raymond Owens and Charlie Reif all added assists.

"We've played them six times this year in tournaments and in the league so we knew down (one game to none) that they would be pretty desperate in the game," said Koehl,a senior, whose goal tied things at 2-2.

"So we knew we had to have a good start. We didn't come out with a good start but when we got our first goal, it really energized our team and the bench got into it. Then it was two more goals quickly after that and I felt that once we got the lead that we really started to believe that we could do this.

"We've come back from a lot of deficits this year, and I feel it's all about our bench energy. We're really close. We spend a lot of time together and we have team dinners before games like this. We've just had a really good bond all throughout the year. It's the most fun team that I've ever played on. We don't get down on ourselves, and even when we're down, we always try to get back up and we always fight harder. If you have that negative bench energy, you're going nowhere."

Brother Rice got goals from Brian Jeffers and Cooper Wainwright while Sean Curtin, Jack Keaty and Blake Mayer contributed assists. Curtin finished CCHL play as his team's scoring leader with 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points.

Coach Paul Manning's Crusaders, who earned the final playoff spot over Mount Carmel due to a tiebreaker for more wins, struck just 43 seconds into the game when Jeffers scored his 12th goal from close range, following an assist from Keaty, which was his ninth. 

Brother Rice made it 2-0 just 9:11 into the game when Wainwright fired in a shot from the side for his second goal, thanks to assists from Curtin, his 16th, and Mayer, his 14th.

"We came out strong, but in the end, it was a tough loss," said Mayer. "We started (the season) with high hopes and we came out strong and everyone was always having a fun time but in the end, it just didn't go the way that we wanted. I'll remember everybody, the coaches, the players, and how it always was a fun time."

The Wolfpack responded a little over a minute after falling behind 2-0 when Velarde got free on a 1-v-1 and connected for his 15th goal, with Perreault credited with his tenth assist, with 6:13 left in the opening period and that's how it remained at the initial break.

Late in the second period, Saint Ignatius moved in front for good when it scored twice in a span of 1:18. Koehl got the equalizer when he fired in a long shot for his fifth goal, unassisted, with 5:39 left in the second. And Perreault connected from close range with 4:21 to go in the period for his first goal, with Kennedy getting his fourth assist, for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

"Obviously we don't want to start off like that, it's not ideal," said Wolfpack junior Jack Rhyner. "But we've been down against great teams, and down 2-0, but we always find a way to come back and I think that's one of our biggest strengths. We have so much chemistry and have played like 50 games now, so we all know what we're doing out there and we're confident to get back. So we don't let it affect us that much.

"I'm feeling great and looking ahead and ready for this next series, even though we don't know who we're playing yet. But that doesn't matter to us because it's season-ending business right now. We've been good all year, but gotten so much better. I think mostly it's because of the chemistry. Everyone is getting along so well in the locker room and things are just starting to click for us. We're very excited. And it's nice to get a little rest here and we'll be ready to go." 

Giunta, recipient of the league's most valuable defenseman award, gave the Wolfpack a two-goal advantage with 14:30 remaining in the contest when he capitalized on a two-man advantage by firing in a liner for his fourth goal with Velarde getting his 11th assist and Reif his fourth helper.

With 3:50 left, Lezotte connected on a power play with a shot from in front of the net for his fourth goal as Klein handed out his 14th assist and Owens was in on his 13th assist. Then with 36 seconds remaining in the contest, Klein scored unassisted to wrap up his team's satisfying comeback victory.

After letting two goals get past him in the early going Wolfpack goalie Sebastian Wigfield, who earned AHAI All-State honors this season, stopped everything else that came his way during the final two-plus periods. For league goalies who've played in 10 or more games, Wigfield has the best goal-against average at 1.44.

Meanwhile, Crusaders goalie Matt Cunningham only let one shot get past him during the first 28 minutes of play but the two-quick scores late in the second period seemed to deflate the hosts. Another goal early in the final period provided a two-goal cushion that basically ended the drama.

"I'm proud of how we handled everything throughout the season," said Cunningham. "We always worked hard together. I love these guys and we love each other. And we never wanted to stop playing with each other. The spirits were always high and I feel like we were always getting along and there wasn't really any time when we were arguing or yelling at each other. 

"We had good chemistry and had a good season and we played hard in every game together. I'm going to take a lot out of this season. It was a long one, but we battled hard and met a lot of people. It was a great season overall, I'm not upset with it."

The Crusaders have eight seniors on their varsity roster, in Liam Bailey-Stobbs, Conor Hansen, Brett Jones, Jake Ryan, Cunningham, Curtin, Jeffers and Mayer.

Players who were selected as CCHL all-stars for the season were Saint Ignatius' Bobby Eber (defense), Will Karnick (forward), Paul O'Grady (forward), Guinta (defense) and Wigfield (goaltender) and Brother Rice’s Conor Haggerty (defense) and Sean Curtin (forward).