OAK LAWN -- Two of the the 2023 Kennedy Cup quarterfinal series have given fans a wild ride to say the least, replete with unlikely comebacks, one-goal differentials, and game-winning goals in overtime.
Brother Rice’s Billy Gaskin did that script one better: he scored a game-winning and series-clinching overtime goal on Wednesday.
Can the game of hockey possibly offer a player any better feeling than that?
“It’s crazy. I’ve never felt like that before,” Gaskin said. “There were a lot of emotions going on.”
On the heels of a Benet-St. Rita series that featured two 4-3 overtime games before Benet staged a two-goal comeback to win 4-3 on Monday, fourth-seeded Brother Rice and fifth-seeded Fenwick kept the high drama alive.
After taking a 2-0 lead in the first period, Brother Rice withstood a fiery comeback by Fenwick that tied the game 2-2 in the third. That’s how regulation ended, sending the game to a 17-minute overtime period.
With 2:14 left to play in overtime, a Brother Rice odd-man break saw Gaskin put his stamp on the series with the game-winning goal. Gaskin quickly sent credit in teammate Jake Potoczny’s direction.
“Potsy made a great play on the ice, made a pass to me two-on-one towards the net, and I just shot it top-right,” Gaskin said. “I just cut to the middle. We were shooting high all game and getting rebounds so I thought I’d try that again and it worked out.”
Then it was time to cue the hysteria. Hockey celebrations after big games usually offer some variation of players screaming, fans screaming, parents screaming, a lot of on-ice hugging, and ear-to-ear grins across the board as players race to the glass where their student fans are losing their minds on the other side.
Brother Rice had all of that after surviving to play another day in the Kennedy Cup playoffs. “I love my guys,” Brother Rice coach Paul Manning said. “This is why I do this.”
The flip side to all of that is, of course, the rank disappointment Fenwick’s players, coaches, and fans had to endure when Gaskin’s goal ended the Friars’ Kennedy Cup hopes.
But as Fenwick’s dejected players straggled out of their locker room inside Oak Lawn Ice Arena, they walked away with a coach’s post-game message in their heads.
“I’m real proud of them,” Fabbrini said. “Obviously we would have preferred to win this series, but I told them I thought we played our best game here in game three, with our backs up against the wall. We played the way we know we’re capable of.”
Per the official box score, Fenwick ultimately posted a 41-28 edge in shots for the game.
“You can’t take anything away from (Fenwick). They bring it at all times and they kind of contained us, too,” Manning said. “The whole series was a slugfest. They had our number early in the year. and they took it to us a couple times. But when we beat them in game two in the Catholic League by a goal, that was a big game for us.”
Fenwick (29-22-2) and Brother Rice (21-25-2) met eight times this season. Fenwick overwhelmed Brother Rice in two early-season meetings, outscoring the Crusaders 15-3 in two wins. But over their next six meetings, the Crusaders went 4-2 against Fenwick, capped by Wednesday’s thriller.
Fenwick won 4-3 in overtime to open the Kennedy Cup play on Saturday but Brother Rice bounced back Sunday with a 6-2 win before clinching the series and moving on to play top-seeded St. Ignatius on Saturday.
“That was just fun,” Brother Rice goaltender Deven Stillo said. “We’ve had our ups and downs with (Fenwick) and we got killed by them a couple times. So then to come back and win like that, in OT — we owed them that.”
Wednesday’s first goal came from a freshman, just over five minutes into the game. Brother Rice forward James Esposito took a puck up the boards on the left side, cut in towards the net, and beat a final defenseman to find an open door to Fenwick goaltender Spencer Lisek.
Lisek covered the near post so the lefty Esposito put it to his backhand to finish the job, calmly burying his second goal of the three-game series.
“I don’t really remember it too well,” Esposito said. “But it felt crazy good. Most of my goals have been on tap-ins, in front of the net — on that one I actually did something to get it.”
The box score showed that Esposito’s goal was Brother Rice’s lone shot of the first period, while Fenwick put 13 shots on but came away empty-handed.
“I thought we carried the play and had way better chances,” Fabbrini said. “But it’s a funny game. It doesn’t always go your way.
“We also had three or four opportunities that should have been odd-man breaks, but we made bad passes. We just didn’t quite execute the way we needed to — passing behind guys, or putting pucks at guys’ feet.”
Brother Rice struck again with 6:02 remaining in the second period when Sean Moran was taken down from behind on a breakaway to earn a penalty shot. He buried it, and Brother Rice had a 2-0 lead.
“Sean Moran had that goal tonight, and we were short-handed in game two when he stole a puck and went all the way down on a breakaway and scored to make it 4-2,” Manning said. “That was the difference in that game. He’s definitely been a difference-maker in the series.”
Fenwick wasn’t about to fold under pressure and the Brother Rice lead held up for less than three minutes. Fenwick stormed back, applying pressure and cutting its deficit in half when Giovanni Sena roofed a shot from tight quarters on the right side, with an assist to Owen Fask.
Brother Rice’s lead held to the 9:43 mark of the third period. Fenwick’s Tommy Fleming scored his second goal of the series, punching in a rebound to tie the game, with assists credited to Fask and Luke LaChance.
The first five minutes of overtime belonged largely to Brother Rice. The Crusaders pressured Lisek and found a handful of truly dangerous scoring chances that the Friars’ goalie turned away to the 12-minute mark.
Momentum had clearly swung in the home team’s direction.
“Dig deep, get pucks deep, pressure, back-check, and play until the end,” Manning said of his message to his players before the overtime period began. “Momentum shifted our way and you never know why that happens.”
Gaskin was glad to see his side elevate its play.
“We were winning battles and our forecheck was huge,” he said. “Their defense fumbled the puck so our forecheck was really important tonight.”
Manning cited a team-wide effort and applauded the play of Charlie McClorey Cooper Wainwright, Conor Haggerty, and Matt Spell, who all shined Wednesday.
Stillo’s 39 saves also had his coach sending plaudits his way.
“The difference in the game is our goalie and we would not win the series without him,” Manning said. “In that overtime they were at the doorstep with a couple opportunities where he came up really big.”
With its CCHL season now over, Fenwick awaits the start of the state playoffs, and can find encouragement in the guts the Friars showed in battling back to tie Wednesday’s game.
“I think for whatever reason, we’ve been battling some confidence issues, especially in this series, in terms of trusting in the way we need to play,” Fabbrini said. “But there was no panic on the bench today. It was all positive and we just kind of dug deep, trusted the process, and got back in the game.
“I thought (Giovanni) Sena was really good tonight and that whole line with Mike Verni, Cam Corvo, and Sean Pondelicek were in the offensive zone all night. They just couldn’t get one.”