After over two weeks of waiting, St. Louis U. High’s varsity hockey team took to the ice for a two-game series this past weekend against the Francis Howell Vikings in the quarterfinal round of the Challenge Cup. The second-seeded Jr. Bills wasted no time dispatching the Vikings, who were utterly dominated in both games as SLUH clinched a semifinal berth for the first time since winning the Cup in 2019.
The first matchup took place on Saturday, Feb. 12, at St Peters Rec Plex South, serving as a home game for the lower-seeded Vikings. While the Jr. Bills, as the second-highest seed, had their spot in the quarterfinals assured from the end of the regular season, Francis Howell had a much tougher road. The eighth of ten seeds in the Challenge Cup, Francis Howell—along with seventh-seeded Marquette, ninth-seeded Oakville, and tenth-seeded Fox—played in a round robin, with the top two finishers moving on to the quarterfinals, and the bottom two teams suffering an early end to their playoffs. As the lowest seed emerging from the round robin, the Vikings assumed the role of seventh seed, thus setting them up for a showdown with SLUH.
The Jr. Bills came into the first game with confidence, after sweeping the regular season series with comfortable 10-2 and 5-1 victories. Scoring kicked off just past the midway point in the first period, when senior forward Sean Wiegers knocked in an even-strength goal past the Vikings’ goalie, on a play assisted by senior forward Max Sextro and junior defenseman Luke Gund.
The Jr. Bills did not stay in the lead for long, though, as an elbowing minor against senior forward Niko Nadreau gave Francis Howell a chance on the power play. The Vikings capitalized with 32 seconds remaining on the man advantage, leveling the score at 1-1 with just under five minutes remaining in the period.
SLUH was not at all fazed by the change in scoreline, however, as goals by sophomore defenseman Will Peterson and Sextro in the final three minutes of the first gave the Jr. Bills a 3-1 advantage going into intermission.
The score remained at 3-1 for much of the second period, until senior forward Zach Petlansky put another shot in the Viking net, courtesy of an assist from his brother, sophomore Logan Petlansky.
It was in the third period, however, when the true disparity in ability between the teams was put on full display, as the Jr. Bills put three even strength goals past the Vikings’ goalie, resulting in a final score of 7-1. SLUH’s dominance over Howell is clearly evidenced in the shots tally from the final period, as they registered a whopping 22 shots to just seven from the Vikings.
“Max Bely stood on his head only allowing one in. We played a really good game for the entire 45 minutes. That was really good for us and we built confidence.”
Although the final scoreline of game one all but assured that SLUH was through to the semifinals, the team still suited up for another game against Francis Howell two days later, on Valentine’s Day. Game two served as a home game for SLUH, and, despite the lack of high stakes, a small but rowdy student section made the trek to Affton to cheer on the Bills.
Scoring got off to a very fast start for SLUH, with senior forward Ben Winkelmann getting a puck past Francis Howell’s goaltender just 28 seconds into the game. Winkelmann’s goal was followed by tallies from Billy Wagner, Nick Lyons, and Finn Barry, giving the Jr. Bills a 4-0 advantage going into the first intermission.
The second period started with a bang, as Lyons put the puck in the net just 11 seconds into the period. Though SLUH surrendered a goal just past the midway point of the second, they made up for it with a Daniel Sendobry score with just over two and half minutes left in the period.
Francis Howell notched one more goal on the night, but goals from Wiegers and Zach Petlansky secured an 8-2 victory over the Vikings, and guaranteed SLUH a first trip to the semifinals in three years. The commanding win adds extra confidence for the Jr. Bills, as they look to return the program to championship glory after early eliminations in both 2020 (failed to progress from round robin) and 2021 (quarterfinal loss to Marquette).
“I was very excited to be a part of the win,” said Sextro. “It was a fun game to play, and playoff hockey is always exciting so I am ready to continue.”
With the quarterfinals settled, the Jr. Bills now look forward to the semifinals, where they will play MCC foes Vianney, who are seeded third. SLUH kicked off their season series with Vianney with a rough start, suffering a 2-1 loss—just their second of the season—to the Griffins on Dec. 13 in a hotly contested game.
Ever since that first loss to the Griffins, the Jr. Bills have been on an absolute tear, registering 11 wins, one tie, and no losses to close out the season and begin the playoffs. That streak included a 4-0 victory over Vianney on Dec. 18, which gives the SLUH contingent an extra boost of confidence in the leadup to this crucial semifinal matchup.
“Their team can score,” said head coach Steve Walters. “They are also physical. We know we have to be able to shut them down defensively and take our offense to them and not get distracted into a physical game. We can play physically but we don’t need it to be a focus for ourselves.”
The other side of the bracket features another all-MCC tilt, with the fourth-seed De Smet Spartans hoping to steal an upset victory over the top-seeded CBC Cadets. SLUH fared very well against De Smet in the regular season, winning both games by a combined score of 6-1, but saw difficulty in overcoming CBC, who handed the Jr. Bills a 1-0 loss in November, and took them to 0-0 tie in January.
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