Martin St. Louis and Brian Gionta faced off against each other hundreds of times over the course of their NHL careers.
Saturday night they added a new chapter to their friendly rivalry they led their 15 Only teams into a quarterfinal matchup at the 2021 Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships.
It’s hard to say who held the upper hand over the course of their NHL careers, but tonight the St. Louis-led Mid Fairfield Blues got the better of Gionta’s Buffalo Jr. Sabres with a 4-1 win to punch their tickets to Sunday’s semifinal showdown against Florida Alliance.
While coaches have long since hung up their competitive skates, many of the traits that signified their illustrious playing careers have transitioned over to the bench. These days they are still as competitive as ever, but their focus has shifted to developing next generation of players by teaching them to play the game the right way.
“I’ve always had so much respect for him,” St. Louis said after he and Gionta met on the ice for a parting handshake. “We’re both two small guys who had long careers and followed similar paths through college to the pros. You can tell his team is well coached and I love playing against them.”
Normally the east coast rivals would cross paths during the regular season, but in a year of Covid this was the first time they’ve played each other.
The Rangers struck first at the 1:58 mark of the first period as Sean Gibbons backhander beat Cooper Rautenstrauch. The play was made by Aram Minnetian, who managed to keep a high clearing attempt in the zone and fed Gibbons who was cutting across the slot for a 1-0 lead.
Eli Friedman made it 2-0 as he took a Sloan Farmer pass and steamrolled down the left wing and fired a low wrist shot to the glove side.
“We talk about evolving as a team and as a player, and you need to learn what it takes to play championship hockey,” St. Louis said. “It’s not always just making pretty plays. There’s a time and a place to make plays but there’s times to not try and manufacture things.”
Adam Gionta cut the lead in half for Buffalo in the opening frame, but Salvatore Guzzo scored on a penalty shot to put the game on ice.
Buffalo had chances to get back into the game, including a five-minute power play in the third period, but after a long week of competition there was nothing left in the tank to take down the tournament’s second seed.
“It’s been one heck of an experience and something these boys will carry for the rest of their lives,” Gionta said in wrapping up the week.
“For some of these kids this may be the epitome of their hockey careers and the highest level that they get to, the biggest tournament and biggest event that they’re a part of. So they should be extremely proud of the effort that they put in to be here.”
Joseph Willis scored a wraparound goal at 10:06 of overtime to give the top-seeded Chicago Mission a come-from-behind victory over the NJ Avalanche.
Next up for the Mission will be Honeybaked, who escaped with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Chicago Young Americans.
Still riding high from the previous day’s dramatic victory over Mid Fairfield, the Avalanche came out fast with Rich Rucieretto staking North Jersey to an early lead before James Reeder potted the equalizer. Rucieretto added his second of the game with 17 seconds remaining in the opening period, when his point shot snuck through a crowd and past a stunned Mission goalie John Gedraitis..
Teams traded goals in the second period as Mission forward Carter Slaggert and the Avalanche’s James Guffre score 15 seconds apart.
In the extra session, Willis took a pass from Gabriel Perreault and streaked into the offensive zone, around the net and managed to slip the shot inside the right post before John Perreault could reach it.
Andrew Strathman and Brandon Hilton scored in the shootout and Kenneth Augustine stopped four of five shooters as Honeybaked won a battle of Midwest giants against the Chicago Young Americans.
Honeybaked will face another Windy City team in the semifinals, the top-seeded Chicago Mission.
It was a typical clash of these youth hockey titans, it was a physical affair where every inch of ice was contested and players paid the price for making plays.
The teams traded first period goals as Jack Gricus scored for CYA and Aiden Connell responded for Honeybaked. Charles O’Connell gave CYA the lead in the second before Reid Daavettila knotted the game at 2-2 in the third.
After a back-and-forth overtime period, the game went to shootouts, Daniel Johnson scored early for CYA before Strathmann and Hilton scored for Honeybaked. Kenneth Augustine was stellar in the shootout, stopping four of five shots. Brayden Macko was equally outstanding, stopping 34 saves for CYA.
Skogen Shrott and Connor Brown scored in a shootout, and Michael Chambre stopped four of five Compuware shooters to lift the Florida Alliance into the semifinals.
Teams traded goals in regulation as Charlie Lewinski gave Compuware the lead in the first period before Jake Johner took a pass from Troy Maldonado and rifled it past Compuware goalie Michael Modelski for a second-period power-play goal.
That was it for the scoring in a game that pitted two evenly-matched teams.
“Those were two equally suited teams who played a hard-fought game from beginning to end,” said Alliance head coach James Brown.
Both goalies were outstanding from the drop of the puck until the final shootout attempt. Modelski and Chambre each stopped 29 of the 30 shots they faced in regulation and overtime. The only difference is that Chambre stopped one more shot in the shootout.
The Alliance came into the quarterfinals already battle tested as they captured the top spot in the tough NHL division. And they have the bruises to prove it.
After opening the tournament with a 4-2 win over the RI Saints, the Alliance lost the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite in overtime and closed out the preliminary round with a 2-1 shootout victory against Honeybaked.
“I think we played in the toughest bracket and had no easy games,” Brown said. “It was tough but we kind of like it that way.”