Both teams cleary had a sense of urgency early on.
“There was a heightened sense of urgency. The pressure to advance to the championship is huge,” said head coach Jack Behan. “I think those factors made the task difficult, but I think the guys stayed the course.”
The calm demeanor from SLUH and the aggressive play from Kirkwood seemed to counteract in the first, leading to neither team possessing the puck for long, and keeping the offensive opportunities few and far between. As the period progressed, though, both teams fell back into their normal style of play, with Kirkwood pulling back slightly and SLUH picking up the physicality. The score remained at 0-0 through the completion of the first.
“All we had to do was tie the game,” said sophomore defenseman Matthew Warnecke. “We didn’t go into the game expecting to blow them out. We knew their goalie was going to make some good saves, and we wanted to keep it close and hopefully beat them in regulation and if worse came to worst we’d take them in the minigame. We pretty much had two lives.”
The second period brought a boost in energy. Offensive opportunities became much more common, and both student sections fired up. As play intensified, Kirkwood’s section began calling out senior captain Henry Wagner, who sent a message with a big hit, followed by a rocket shot resulting in a goal, which sent SLUH’s fans into a frenzy and put the Jr. Bills up 1-0 with 5:26 left.
“It was really exciting, especially with all the people there,” said Simoncic. “It got really loud, and everyone’s adrenaline got pumping. Once we got one, we started getting really confident and wanted to get another.”
Two minutes later, Wagner sent a pass to Simoncic, who buried the puck on a power play to give SLUH a 2-0 lead.
SLUH only got comfortable for a few minutes though, as, with 8 seconds left, Kirkwood scored a deflection goal to cut the lead to 2-1.
The Jr. Bills kept in mind that anything was possible in playoff hockey, and they reflected that in their tactical defensive play in the third. Senior Brendan Rasch came through with many clutch saves, and the team kept the puck on the move even if they were not in possession of it. As time ticked down, pressure reached an all-time high.
“Without question our guys new to the situation handled the enormity of the game with great poise and determination,” said Behan. “I really think that the seventh man gets an assist in this area as they make the game so fun for our guys.”
It was then that the world famous rally squid was thrown onto the ice. SLUH’s student section exploded with enthusiasm as the symbol of the Jr. Bills’ resilience hit the ice and provided some needed comedic relief.
“Everyone thought it was really funny,” said Simoncic. “It was a lot of fun, you know, it’s a classic.”
Seconds felt like minutes as time ticked off the clock at the St. Peters Rec Plex. As the last few minutes came though, Kirkwood had no choice but to pull their goalie, who had been putting in work for the Pioneers throughout the game. While they managed to hold the puck for a little, they soon lost it and Simoncic finished the empty netter to punch the Jr. Bills’ ticket to the Enterprise Center for a shot at the Challenge Cup.
SLUH will face MCC and Jesuit rival De Smet at the Enterprise Center March 13 to decide Missouri’s State Champion.
“The guys are focused and on a mission,” said Behan on the team’s mindset for state.