Emotions on Ice: League Playoffs, State Tournament Up the Late-Season Excitement

By Ross Forman – There was a mix of emotions for the New Trier Hockey Program on Sunday, Feb. 23 – joy, elation, celebration and even shock.

Let’s start at West Meadows Ice Arena in Rolling Meadows for the 4:50 p.m. game for the Varsity Gold League championship of the North-Central Division. New Trier Gray grabbed a 1-0 edge at 12:45 of the second period on a power play goal by Sean Walker, assisted by Mica Glass.

Leyden answered at 11:43 of the third period on a goal by Joshua Galizia, assisted by Kevin Kuzbik.

Trey Bess brought elation to the Trevians with his overtime tally, assisted by Jack Farrell.

New Trier Blue then stepped on the ice at West Meadows, starting at 6:30 p.m., for the deciding game three of the Championship Series against co-op PREP for the Champions Varsity League. Blue won game one, 5-1, then dropped game two, 3-2.

In game three, Lueken Stewart’s third period goal, assisted by Luke Baldwin, was the game-winner, as Blue celebrated its 2-1 victory.

Meanwhile, at the North Shore Ice Arena in Northbrook, New Trier Green took the ice at 5:30 p.m., against Saint Viator in game one of the best-of-three Scholastic Hockey League playoff series.

The Lions ultimately triumphed, 4-3, sending shock throughout the New Trier community and well beyond. After all, the No. 1-ranked Green Trevians had only lost one game all season to an Illinois high school team.  And Green had defeated Viator in all four games the two teams have played this season, with the Lions only scoring a combined 5 goals in those 4 previous games.

Both teams scored power-play goals in the first, so it was 1-1 after one.

Green scored two more power play goals in the second to grab a 3-1 edge.

Viator cut it to 3-2 with a man-advantage goal, then tied the game late in the second.

“We had a lot of momentum (after two periods) and our message was, ‘(When playing) 5-on-5, we’re up 1-0,’” Viator head coach Tim Benz said.

Viator scored a power play goal with about 9 minutes left to play in the third, and that Sean Wagner goal proved to be the game-winner.

“We had pressure on one of their defenseman and he was attempting to ice the puck. Kevin Uhlir ultimately won a board battle and put the puck into an area where Sean could pick it up right near the middle of the blue line, in between both of their defensemen. So Sean had a pseudo-breakaway. He ultimately made a quick move to his backhand and scored five-hole,” Benz said. “Once we went up, the message was, ‘Don’t play not to lose, play to win; keep doing the things we were doing right.’”

Viator slipped past Stevenson in the SHL semifinals, winning game three on Stevenson’s home ice in Buffalo Grove.

The Viator win over Green “definitely” was one of the team’s biggest wins all season, Benz said. Game Two in the best-of-three series between Viator and Green is Wednesday, February 26 in Mount Prospect, starting at 7 p.m. Game three, if needed, is Thursday, Feb. 27 in Wilmette, starting at 8 p.m.

And this season isn’t close to over for Viator. “I think we have a good shot at a run at the United Center,” Benz said.

Viator, with the No. 3 seed, opens state play this Saturday in Bensenville against No. 35 Fenwick. The winner of that game then will face the winner of Glenbrook South/Hinsdale Central.

“It’s not going to be an easy task,” getting to the United Center, “but it’s definitely obtainable,” Benz said. “We’re very good, though we don’t have the one of two explosive players like we’ve had the past couple of years, but we are deeper this season and have a good, solid defensive core.”

Plus, Viator is very motivated.

Benz said Illinois hockey overall this season is very strong and there definitely is parity.

“There could be upsets in every round,” of the state tournament, Benz said. “There’s no reason (this season) why a team ranked No. 20 or No. 25 can’t steal a game from No. 5-ranked team or a No. 3-ranked team.

“The level of play overall is definitely improving every year.”

Can Green be stopped?

“The key is, (Green’s) power play, which is extremely lethal. You have to stay out of the (penalty) box against Green,” Benz said. “You have to match (Green’s) intensity and effort; they come to work hard and they want to beat you in all facets of the game.”

Benz tagged No. 7 Stevenson as a Red Division dark horse. “They’ve gotten better and better all season and have some really, really good defensemen who like to get offensive as well; that’s always a threat,” Benz said. “Plus, they have three solid lines that do a very good job of keeping the puck down low and are threats that can score.”

The Patriots open state play on Saturday, Feb. 29, against No. 10 Loyola Gold in Bensenville.

Note: St. Viator photos courtesy of Joe Callahan

Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.


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