By Chris Dubiel
The regular season GLJHL champions met the number four seed in the West Division, the St. Louis Frontenacs in the opening round of the playoffs. Chicago hosted the best of three series at International Ice Centre with game one taking place late Friday night and game two on Saturday night.
Coming in as underdogs, St. Louis looked to grab the momentum early by fore checking aggressively and finishing their checks. Just two minutes in, when the Hitmen turned the puck over in their own end, Alexander Goodman was able to beat Hitmen goaltender Willie Krafcheck with a wrist shot to give the Frontenacs an early lead.
St. Louis pressured the Hitmen into making rushing passes and making turnovers until the Frontenacs ran into penalty trouble. Goodman took an interference penalty about six minutes into the first and Bradley Anderson was sent off for cross checking only about one minute later. With Anderson in the box, Michael Jancovic #20 scored on a powerplay as Brandon Kirchens’ #52 centering pass deflected off of Jancovic’s skate and passed Frontenacs goaltender Tyler Parks for the tying goal. As the period wore on, the Hitmen were able to swing the momentum their way late, as Tyler Cosentino #14 took a feed from Matt Soukup #18, and sneaked a wrister past Parks for the go-ahead goal.
In quiet second period, Jonathan Stevanovich #9 scored with about four minutes left to give Chicago the 3-1 lead. Michael Delaney #17 and Kirchens #52 assisted on the play. He would strike again for the only goal in the third period as Soukup #18 would pick up another assist. Kirchens #52 got his third helper of the game on the goal that closed out the scoring at 4-1.
Willie Krafcheck #31, who shined during a flurry of first period chances for St. Louis, earned the victory stopping 28 of 29 shots. Parks suffered the loss, allowing four goals on 54 shots.
Leading the series 1-0, the Hitmen would look to avoid game three with a strong effort on Saturday night. They started off on the right track with Mike Lozano #28 burying a rebound just 26 seconds into the game. Matt Soukup #18 and Jonathan Stevanovich #9 created havoc at the goal mouth and the puck laid loose for Lozano to pound it home.
Weathering the early storm, St. Louis was able to turn the tide with some scoring opportunities generated by quick puck movement in the Chicago end. They were able to work the puck from low in the corners to up high at the point, with the long shots creating second chance opportunities with rebounds. St. Louis finally evened the score when a shot snuck in behind Hitmen goaltender Matt Johnson #30 and trickled over the line. Andrew Jarvis was credited with the goal. About two minutes later, the Frontenacs took the lead when a centering pass was blocked by the stick of Johnson who was sliding to his right and the puck found its way to a wide open Derek Vogler. Vogler’s goal was a result of hard work by St. Louis’ forwards down low and it game them a 2-1 lead. The shots on goal were tied at 12 going into the first intermission.
The second period gave the Hitmen a chance to get back into the game with a determined St. Louis team hell bent on forcing game three. At 2:45 of the period, Michael Delaney #17, Pete Jorgensen #22, and Cody Kromeich #16 streaked into the Frontenacs zone on a 3-on-1. Delaney #17 fed it to Jorgensen#22 on his left, who then sent a quick pass across the slot for Kromeich to stuff the puck between the legs of St. Louis goaltender Benjamin Sequens. The game tying goal electrified the International Ice Centre crowd and the Hitmen were able to ride the momentum for the next few shifts. However, the score would stay at 2-2 going into the third period.
The final frame would see both teams play tight checking hockey in what was a chance for St. Louis to stay alive and for Chicago to advance. Nicholas Turcotte #27 took a charging penalty at 5:20 of the third but the Hitmen would not stay shorthanded very long as Jarvis took a roughing penalty about one minute later. With Turcotte out of the box, the Hitmen went on a short powerplay. With some open ice, Connor Quinn #51 took the puck end to end and blew a wrist shot by the glove of Sequens to give Chicago a 3-2 lead on a crucial powerplay goal.
With about half the period left, St. Louis went into desperation mode, but failed to get quality scoring chances as Chicago locked down in front of Johnson. As the game reached the final minute, Sequens was pulled to give St. Louis a 6-on-5 man advantage. A face-off victory in the final half-minute allowed the Hitmen to clear the zone with hard work along the boards by Kyle Clark #10 and Stevanovich #9. Clark #10 dug the puck loose and gave an exit pass to Soukup #18 who streaked down the ice to deposit the empty net goal.
After a far more disciplined effort, St. Louis just came up short as the Hitmen were able to tighten up defensively when the needed to most. Despite a brilliant effort stopping 38 of 41 shots, Sequens was handed the season-ending loss. Johnson #30 made 26 saves in the series-clinching victory.
LAKES CUP ROUND ROBIN
By defeating the St. Louis Frontenacs, the Hitmen advance to the round robin tournament for the GLJHL Lakes Cup Championship in Stevens Point, WI. Chicago, Motor City, Central Wisconsin, and the Michigan Ice Dogs will all play each other once over three games. The teams with the best two records will compete in the championship game. The Hitmen will continue on their road to the Lakes Cup against the Central Wisconsin Saints on Thursday at 8:00 p.m.