Game-winning goals in overtime aren’t something the vast majority of hockey players ever experience, let alone scoring a game-winner to earn your team a league championship.
St. Ignatius’ Jack Rhyner is one of the lucky few.
“It was an incredible feeling,” Rhyner said after his goal in a second overtime gave St. Ignatius a 4-3 win over Providence Catholic, and a second consecutive Kennedy Cup title for the program.
“It made it even better that it sealed the deal for a group of guys that I think deserved it more than anyone — everyone has put in so much work this season. It was a crazy, awesome way to end it and it's hard to put into words how it felt. Having all of your brothers there to celebrate with you, that’s just an incredible feeling.”
For the past month, St. Ignatius has been a runaway freight train, barreling down a mountain and flattening everything in its path. In Game One of this year’s Kennedy Cup finals, Providence fell victim to that flattening in a 8-2 loss on Feb. 20.
Game Two was a different animal. From start to finish, Sunday’s game was played fast and gritty both ways, surpassing what fans could have hoped for.
“Game Two was far more indicative of the rivalry between us,” St. Ignatius coach Spencer Montgomery said. “It was an absolute war and more reflective of a Kennedy Cup final. It was an epic hockey game and we feel grateful to have withstood their push-back.”
A wild first period saw five goals put on the scoreboard before the game was 10 minutes old. Providence struck first when Finn Harris capitalized on a Wolfpack turnover, taking the puck from right to left across the slot between the circles. The lefty’s low shot low shot tore a path just inside the near post on the left side past St. Ignatius goaltender Ethan Laughlin.
It was clear from the outset that Providence (34-19-4) came ready to fight against a St. Ignatius team that has been on an eight-game streak of dominance, with running clocks earned in every game. The Wolfpack went into Sunday’s game on an 11-game win streak, having not lost since Providence beat them 4-0 on Jan. 22.
But the Wolfpack knew the Celtics would bring added intensity into Game Two.
“We knew they’d scratch and claw and bite and try to get everything out of us,” St. Ignatius defenseman Jack Perreault said. “We had to by ready to lay the body, pursue the puck, and getting it deep and playing the simple game. After they struck first I thought ‘all right, this is going to be good tonight’. I knew then it wasn’t going to be an easy blowout.”
Providence captain Vinny Felice knew his side would be ready for Game Two against the St. Ignatius juggernaut.
“When (Harris) scored the first goal, that got us momentum and it got us going,” Felice said. “We had our backs against the wall and we realized we had to play with some desperation. I knew we’d answer the bell because we’d been answering it all year. Everyone put their bodies on the line and sacrificed themselves to win, but it just didn’t go our way.”
St. Ignatius (48-12-0) tied the game just 37 seconds after Harris’ goal, on an unassisted Tiernan Ryan goal. Ryan flew up the right side along the boards with the puck and cut across in front of Providence goaltender Drew Pavich before depositing his backhand shot to make it 1-1 at the 14:56 mark of the first period.
The Wolfpack went up 2-1 on the power play at the 11:06 mark. From behind the Providence goal, Corbin Klein sent a pass to the front of the net where Jack Perreault took a swipe at it. Pavich stopped it but Perreault buried the rebound. Jackson Steinlauf also assisted on the play.
Vinny Felice tied the game 2-2 at the 8:33 mark, when Nico Felice beat everyone to a puck behind the net on the right side and found his brother open at the far post.
The tie held for less than a minute. St. Ignatius made it 3-2 at 7:39 and Ryan was again the key figure, driving to the net on the right side before sending a perfect feed to Cam Kosmala at the back post for an easy goal.
“The whole state should be watching out for Tiernan Ryan,” Montgomery said. “He's a sophomore playing with a man's build and he is as competitive a player as I have ever coached.”
For nearly the next 25 minutes of play, including a scoreless second period, the 3-2 lead for St. Ignatius held. Both sides had quality looks on net but Laughlin and Pavich kept the slate clean.
Providence found another equalizing goal, 41 seconds into the third period on the power play. Nico Felice sent a pass across the slot from the right side, and Carson Burris one-timed it past Laughlin for the 3-3 tie. Travis Briar also assisted on the play.
The Celtics were neck-and-neck in a toe-to-toe battle.
“In the first game we weren’t getting those opportunities, we weren’t creating turnovers, or putting the pressure on them,” Iaciancio said. “It helped that we scored first and were in the game, and never fell too far behind. Some of our seniors stood up and started taking the body and then some of the younger guys started getting into it.”
The 3-3 tie held for over 40 minutes, through the end of regulation and the first 17-minute overtime period. The second overtime was nine minutes old when Rhyner rode up on his white horse and played the hero.
The winning play started when Perreault fired a shot that was blocked, deep on the right side. Perreault gathered the puck back up behind the net before sending it out to Rhyner out at the point on the right side.
Rhyner let it fly.
“The whole two overtimes we were putting shots on from down low and I thought maybe if we got some shots from up at the point, something a little different might trip (Pavich) up a bit,” rhyner said. “I thought I saw an opening and I just shot it.”
Rhyner’s shot tore a path through a crowd to the upper ninety near the left-side post.
“Rhyner was fresh off the bench and that was a huge goal for him,” Montgomery said. “He hit kind of a heat-seeking missile that found its way through a lot of traffic. But that play really developed because we established pressure down low, and when we do that we get their ‘D’ and forwards exchanging and it creates a little bit of chaos.”
The natural madness of an on-ice celebration from St. Ignatius ensued, with gloves, sticks, and helmets strewn around the rink, befitting the completed task of winning the 2023 Kennedy Cup.
“I am extremely proud of this group,” Montgomery said. “It's really the journey that's enjoyable and seeing them take so many strides from the beginning of the season and bonding together — there's no bickering at our bench, no finger-pointing when things are going wrong, and guys pick each other up. When you have that kind of environment as a coach, you're just happy to be a part of it.
Sixth-seeded St. Ignatius next plays third-seeded York in a state quarterfinal game, at The Edge ice arena in Bensenville on Sunday at 6:50. The Wolfpack won 9-0 over Highland Park and 10-3 over New Trier White to reach the quarterfinal round.
“We've got York on Sunday, so the celebration is short-lived,” Montgomery said. “We enjoyed the championship but now we have to set our sites on York. We really feel we’re a team that has a chance to make it to the (state title game), and we're not going to waste that opportunity.”
Providence bids farewell to nine seniors from this year’s team, including Pavich, four-year varsity player Vinny Felice and fellow captains Travis Briar and Zach Xydakis, plus Tom Dukups, Charley Muraskas, Drake Thomas, Aidan Castleton, and Nick Mastro.
Iaciancio appreciated what his boys brought to the ice in their final game of the season.
“It started fast with a bunch of goals and then it kind of settled in to a little bit of a slugfest,” Iaciancio said. “I told our kids ‘welcome to old-fashioned, Kennedy Cup final hockey’. It was a great atmosphere and I thought our kids battled. We would have liked to force Game Three but I really have no complaints about the way we played.
“We played pretty much as well as we could and we played their style of hockey. It was physical and fast-paced. I told our guys in the locker room I was proud of them for making a stand.”
The Wolfpack have been lighting up the scoreboard for a month, a fact summed up in an age-old adage in every sport:
“Guys have stepped up,” Rhyner said. “Sophomore Tiernan Ryan is having a great season, Corbin Klein obviously, Jack Perreault, Charlie Reif getting moved back to defense and he’s just been a stud back there — it’s been great. Everyone had found their position and is playing their part.”
And great offense always starts with great defense.
“We have to play a 200-foot game because our offense begins with sound defense and positioning,” Montgomery said. “Our game is predicated on a heavy forecheck getting the puck down low. None of that is possible unless we’re defensively strong. Outside of (Providence’s) power-play I thought we were really good five-on-five in limiting their chances.”
And when the defense is shining, the St. Ignatius offense can be a sight to behold.
“I've got some absolute weapons offensively,” Montgomery said. “Corbin Klein, to me, is the best player in the state. If you were to look at him in a try out or put him through some drills, he might not stand out, but he has subtle nuances to his game, little puck touches, add to just an absolute nose for the net that makes him dynamic.
“Jack Perreault is a one-man break out. He's heavy, hard to play against and you're just not winning one-on-one battles against him. He's also the heartbeat of the team. He wears the ‘C’ and really leads these guys. This is the time of year when you turn over the keys to your leader ship group and I think ours is second to none.”
With the departure of four key defensemen to graduation, Iaciancio and his coaching staff will go back into the lab and try to come out with another winning formula for the 2023-24 season.
“We’ll be a forward-heavy team going into the season,” Iaciancio said. “Nico (Felice), Fin (Harris), and Bruno Handzel were all defensemen when they came into the program, so whether that’s moving guys around or not, we’ll tackle that over the summer and start piecing that puzzle together.”
Nico Felice was one of the Celtics’ top defensemen as a sophomore, before Iaciancio moved him up to a forward’s role. All Felice did from there was lead the team in scoring this season.
He also got to play for three years with his older brother, and Nico assisted on the final goal of Vinny’s career on Sunday.
“It’s been really cool playing with him,” Vinny Felice said. “We never played on the same team until he came to Providence. He was originally going to go to Lincoln-Way and I convinced him to come and play for Providence. He got used to it fast and it’s been really fun playing with him. We had a lot of chemistry out there.”
Pavich cut a varsity path common to many high school players, which culminated in the senior being named an all-state player and MVP of the CCHL for this season. Pavich played on Providence’s lower levels as a freshman and sophomore, then played behind all-CCHL goalie Luke Brzezinski last season.
But this year, Pavich was the lone goaltender on the Providence varsity roster and he made his senior year count.
“I think he played fifty-five games and when you’re playing in tournaments, he was playing five games in three days,” Iaciancio said. “We were lucky he was never seriously hurt. I told him early we were going with one (goalie on the roster) and he took it to heart. I couldn’t be prouder of the way he handled it. He’s one of those great stories about perseverance and working your way through the program, that I’ll tell for years to come.”