March 6, 2020 @ Xcel Energy Center 8:00
The two titans of the Metro East Conference took the State of Hockey’s center stage with a championship game berth at stake. Hill-Murray had a slight edge in the two previous head-to-head games, earning a 1-1 tie and 3-2 win over St. Thomas Academy during the regular season. The third contest would eventually play out similarly, but opening act of the drama was all Pioneers, who took a 2-0 lead barely six minutes in thanks to two power play goals. St. Thomas went shorthanded in the first minute, and following two cross ice passes by Nick Pierre and Matthew Fleishhacker, Dylan Godbout’s quick shot found a gap and then the back of the net. Stationed in nearly the same spot on Hill-Murray’s second power play five minutes later, Godbout whacked in a rebound of Joe Palodichuk’s long shot before it ever touched the ice. St. Thomas had two ineffective power plays of their own later in the period, which ended with Hill-Murray up by two and looking strong.
The second period saw both teams less effective at creating offensive flow than backchecking and patiently waiting for scoring opportunities. That was fine for Hill-Murray, playing with a lead and still getting the more dangerous shots at least through the first half of the period. Henry Eischen set up Charlie Strobel twice with slick passes; Tommy Aitken somehow stretched across the crease to save the first, and the later opportunity was shot over the net. The Cadets’ first grade A chance was actually saved by Eischen, who anticipated a backdoor pass as St. Thomas attacked 3-on-2, and nicely blocked Will Soderling’s one-timer with his boot. A minute later, the teams exchanged 2-on-1 rushes, with Remington Keopple making a pad save on Bjorn Kilen’s wrister and Aitken fighting off Godbout’s bid for a third goal.
St. Thomas predictably emptied their tank in the third and the onslaught began in the first minute. Talented centerman Jackson Hallum sped into the offensive zone and drew enough attention from Hill-Murray's defenders to free up a passing lane to streaking left winger Riley O’Brien, whose shot found the upper corner for the highlight goal of the night. Following that, Hill-Murray stopped pushing the pace for the first time in the tournament. But with Keopple playing well, they were in good shape until taking an offensive zone penalty with seven minutes remaining. Unlike the first period, St. Thomas was able to maintain control on the power play and eventually Charlie Killian drilled a long shot past a double screen, off the far goalpost and in for the tying goal.
Hill-Murray found their stride again after that, but with both goalies and defenses playing well, overtime ensued. The Pioneers wound up with a 9-0 shot advantage in the extra eight minutes, most of which was played in the St. Thomas zone, although the other end of the rink was not without action. Soderling had an open mid-range shot but sent it wide, and both O’Brien and Hallum passed up shots inside twenty feet in the final minute. Seconds later, Hill-Murray defenseman Matthew Fleishhacker opted instead to put the puck on net from the right point. Aitken had been impregnable for 52 minutes, but couldn’t control the shot. Strobel timed his charge to the net perfectly, and nudged the rebound past Aitken and a sprawling defender to put Hill-Murray in the championship game, and not a moment too soon to avoid playing more extra periods while trying to win three games in three days.
This was the 2020 Pioneers’ school record seventh overtime game of the season, but their first victory following three losses and three ties. The program extended its tournament historical record with its 18th overtime game. This was also the 100th all-time match between Hill-Murray and St. Thomas Academy, dating back to 1961 when both schools were members of the Central Catholic Conference. Hill-Murray leads in the series 73-25-2, with a much narrower 12-10-2 advantage in the past decade.
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