Paul Zuke and Ryan Trenz overcame the uncertainty of longterm injuries to join goalie Josh Hillegas in leading the St. Louis Junior Blues to the USA Hockey Tier III Junior A National Championship.
Zuke, Trenz and Hillegas were all at their best when the Junior Blues needed it most to produce the program\’s fifth national championship and the first on the Junior A level.
St. Louis won the Junior B national title from 2004-2007 over many of the same competitors that are now on the Tier III Junior A level. Although much of the field was the same then, it did not include teams from the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
Junior Blues coach Jack Behan said his players might not have realized the significance of the challenge they mastered when they beat EJHL teams back-to-back in the final two games to take the national title.
\”The EJ is a heck of a league,\” Behan said. \”I think New Hampshire has 14 D-I commitments. I was talking to a parent from the South Shore team and they have five guys who they think could be drafted this year.
\”Those are tremendous hockey teams. Realistically, we shouldn\’t be on the same level.\”
In reality, they were, on the two days that mattered most, the final two days of the national tournament.
St. Louis lost to the New York Bobcats, 4-3, in the first game of pool play.
After a 10-3 rout of the Seattle Totems, the Junior Blues had to win three straight games, all against teams that were in unbeaten in regulation in the tournament. St. Louis was outshot in all three games, but won each by a goal to win the national championship.
\”The big star of the weekend was Josh Hillegas,\” Behan said. \”As the week went on, he got stronger each game.
\”The last three games, he was flawless.\”
St. Louis was outshot 12-4 in the first period and 38-35 in the game against the Rochester Ice Hawks, the Minnesota Junior Hockey League champions and a longtime rival on the national level.
Hillegas stopped every shot in the first period to help the Junior Blues take a 1-0 lead on the way to a 4-3 win. The teams were tied 1-1 heading into the third period before Kyle Everett twice scored goals to put the Junior Blues ahead.
Christopher Hutton\’s empty-net goal wound up being the game-winner when Rochester\’s Justin Phelps scored with an extra attacker with a second left.
The win over Rochester was needed just to get St. Louis into the semifinals.
\”The win against Rochester Sunday was dramatic,\” Behan said. \”They were tough. We played a great third period.\”
Behan joked that his team benefitted from not getting \”the memo\” that they were potentially overmatched at that point.
The three-time defending national champion New Hampshire Junior Monarchs outshot St. Louis 48-25 and led early in the game before the Junior Blues rallied for a 2-1 victory.
\”Monday against the Monarchs, I don\’t think we touched the puck for the first five minutes,\” Behan said. \”As the game wore on, our goaltending was outstanding.
\”We started creating some opportunities and even took advantage of some.\”
Jamie Ferullo\’s power-play goal at 15:46 of the first period gave New Hampshire a 1-0 lead.
St. Louis went 2-for-4 on the power play and killed off its seven penalties to pull out the win.
Nicholas Saracino tied the game at 10:36 of the second period.
Trenz, a defenseman who scored the first goal against Rochester and assisted on Saracino\’s tying goal earlier in the game, scored the game-winner with 5:23 left in regulation on a blast from the point.
\”Last year, he played forward, but we converted him to defense,\” Behan said. \”He\’s clearly been our most improved player over the course of the season.\”
Trenz, who had missed a month late in the season with a lacerated spleen, had three goals and three assists to lead all tournament defensemen in scoring.
\”It dramatically changed the makeup of our team when he returned,\” Behan said. \”He really was huge in our league playoffs.\”
The Central States Hockey League champions still had one last test left against a South Shore Kings team that had the tournament\’s top four scorers and had defeated its first four national opponents by a total of 29-5.
St. Louis built leads then held on for a 4-3 victory even though South Shore had shot advantages of 45-20 in the game and 19-5 in the third period.
The Junior Blues had their top three regular-season scorers play through injuries in the national tournament. Behan said the effort his team had to expend to stay on top in the last three games made it impossible for him to shorten his bench and push a few players harder to hold the lead at the end.
\”At a time when you might shorten the bench, we had to run all four lines,\” he said.
South Shore used its timeout early in the second period and changed goalies later in the second period.
\”They tried everything to get the momentum back,\” Behan said. \”We were just outworking them.\”
Zuke opened the scoring with an unassisted short-handed goal, the only one scored in the first period. He added the eventual game-winner for a 4-1 lead midway through the third.
It was a big finish to a season that started with disappointment.
Zuke was attempting to make the move from St. Louis last year to Alexandria of the North American Hockey League, but after suffering a broken ankle in the offseason, he did not make the team.
Zuke returned to St. Louis, but a sprained ankle slowed him down.
\”It was the most frustrating season I\’ve seen a kid go through,\” Behan said.
Until the end.
Zuke\’s two goals and an assist, plus one goal each from Saracino on the power play and Patrick Gregory shorthanded, were enough to stop the Kings.
Behan said each national title is special for its own reason.
\”This was probably the most remarkable and most unlikely,\” he said.
Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc.