Priory, Whitfield reach Founders Cup semifinals in Midstates Club Hockey Association playoffs
By: Warren Mayes
The semifinals are set for the Founders Cup with Priory facing St. Mary’s and Whitfield meeting Mehlville in the Midstates Club Hockey Association playoffs.
The action begins Thursday (Feb. 14) at Queeny Park. Whitfield and Mehlville play at 6:30 p.m. while Priory and St. Mary’s face off at 8:30 p.m. The second game of each series will be played Friday. Whitfield and Mehlville will play at 9:30 p.m. at South County while Priory and St. Mary’s play at 9:30 at Queeny.
Priory coach John Rourke is happy with the way his Rebels (8-16-1) are playing.
“We are playing as well as we have all season,” Rourke said. “We had significant injury problems during the regular season.”
Senior Jack Rourke suffered from a serious groin injury and talented goalie TJ Niemann was sidelined for the entire regular season due to knee surgery.
“Both players are back now and playing well,” Rourke said. “We also missed goalie Stephen Clark and outskater Tommy Weaver due to injuries during the season. We are still suffering from injuries (Tommy Weaver and Parker Ferguson), but we are playing better than we have for some time.”
Priory entered Founders Cup action seeded 9th and had a play-in series with Fort Zumwalt South. Priory won the series with wins of 6-5 and 2-1.
“Those were nice wins as we had lost to Fort Zumwalt South towards the end of the regular season,” Rourke said. “In the first game, we dug ourselves quite a hole and were on the wrong side of a seemingly insurmountable lead by Fort Zumwalt South.”
However, the Rebels rebounded. Led by Paul Deschler’s three goals, Priory scored five unanswered goals to seize control.
“We were then able to withstand a furious comeback attempt,” Rourke said. “In the second game, we were able to tie the game late and then pull out the victory. Both of these games were big confidence builders.”
Priory advanced to play top-seeded Parkway West. Priory had played Parkway West at the beginning of the season and beat the Longhorns.
“While we suffered a very difficult slump after our first few victories, Parkway West had a pretty good season,” Rourke said. “Prior to the series, I just reminded the boys that we had it within us to beat Parkway West but that we had to play hard and smart and good defensive hockey. We knew that it would be a challenge as they are a well-coached team with some real quality players.”
The series did not start well for Priory. The Longhorns won the opener 5-3.
“We got outplayed and outcoached by Parkway West,” Rourke said. “We started off strong, with a 2-0 lead, but just could not put Parkway West away. To Parkway West’s credit, they did not give up, withstood our initial surge, played their way back into the contest and eventually got the lead.
“When that happened, our team lost its composure for a time. We eventually tried to get back into the game and had our chances to tie the game, but ran out of time. Ultimately, an empty net goal made it a 5-3 final.”
Facing a must-win game in the next outing or be done for the season, Priory responded and won 5-2.
“The boys were well prepared mentally entering Monday (Feb. 11) night’s game,” Rourke said. “They knew that if they played better they had a good chance of success. The game plan was to try to get a lead and play solid defense to maintain the lead.
“The boys played well enough and made adjustments in their game when needed, but Parkway West played very well. Frankly, Parkway West outplayed us. Their coaching staff did a great job of getting their players prepared for the game. Our outskaters played well enough to win, but frankly, our goaltender (Niemann) played extremely solid and stole the game for us.”
That led to the mini-game tiebreaker to see who advanced to the semifinals. Priory prevailed and scored a 1-0 victory. Deschler scored the winning goal in shootouts after the mini-game ended in a scoreless tie. After Deschler scored the first goal in the shootout, Niemann was able to shut down Parkway West’s three shooters.
“Our fans, who deserve a lot of credit for their support, then erupted in pandemonium,” Rourke said. “It was a very exciting finish to a hard-fought night of hockey. The team and its fans were ecstatic.”
Now, Priory plays fifth-seeded St. Mary’s. This will be a tough series, Rourke said.
“I do consider Priory to be the underdog. St. Mary’s was and is, rightfully, higher-seeded than us, had a better regular season and has been successful in its earlier playoff games,” Rourke said. “Even though we were able to knock them off in a game in the regular season, St. Mary’s looks better on paper, has some solid players and should be favored. Hopefully our play of late will make it a good series.”
For Priory to advance to the 6:45 p.m. championship game Tuesday (Feb. 18) at Queeny Park, Rouke said the solution is simple.
“We need solid goaltending,” Rourke said. “We need all of our outskaters playing good defensive hockey. We need to have our top players to show leadership and to play at or near the best of their abilities.
“It never hurts to have a little bit of luck and a few good bounces of the puck. Whatever happens, the boys deserve credit for their persevering through a very trying season.”