Cougars topple No. 2-seeded STA

South to play Moorhead in Class AA semifinals

Lakeville South forward Cory Checco sails through the air after scoring the Cougars' first goal in their 5-2 victory over St. Thomas Academy on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Jim Lindquist/
Lakeville South forward Cory Checco sails through the air after scoring the Cougars’ first goal in their 5-2 victory over St. Thomas Academy on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Jim Lindquist/

Lakeville South proved once again that when it’s in the boys state hockey tournament, seeds mean little.

The Cougars knocked off No. 2-seeded St. Thomas 5-2 in the opening game of the Class AA quarterfinals Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. The last time South was in the state tourney in 2012, it toppled No. 1-seeded Duluth East in the quarterfinals.

While happy to repeat their state quarterfinal history, the Cougars will look to re-write the script for the semifinals when they play Moorhead at 6 p.m. Friday. In the 2012 semifinals, South lost to Benilde-St. Margaret’s 10-1 before rebounding to win the third-place game.

“We did acknowledge we were not getting a whole lot of love going into this game,” South coach A.J. Bucchino said. “That’s OK. It happens. Selfishly, when I was a player or coach, I loved that. It’s fun to prove people wrong and work hard and reach a goal people don’t think you can reach.

“It didn’t matter what the seed was. These guys believed they could win.”

The Cougars (19-9-1) had to withstand a fast start by St. Thomas Academy, which outshot them 17-4 in the first period.

St. Thomas Academy (23-5-1) took the lead 8:58 into the game when Payton Matsui chipped the puck off the boards past a Lakeville South player. Willie Reim retrieved it and found Ray Christy alone in front of South goalie Isaiah DiLaura. At the time of Christy’s goal, STA had a 10-1 advantage in shots on goal.

That appeared to awaken South, which responded about three minutes later. William Moore took a relatively harmless wrist shot from the right wing, but STA goalie Atticus Kelly directed the rebound into the slot – and onto the stick South forward Cory Checco, who scored to tie the game.

Lakeville South outplayed St. Thomas in the second period and took a 3-1 lead on goals 47 seconds apart. Junior Jack Olsen, who has seen time at forward and defense for the Cougars, took a faceoff in the offensive zone. After players from both teams swiped at the puck, Olsen found it at his feet and shot it between Kelly’s pads.

“We were planning on winning (the faceoff) back to the defense, but it got caught in my skate,” Olsen said. “So I just kicked it to my stick. We were focusing on getting shots on net, so I just threw it on net and it worked out.”

The lead grew to 3-1 less than one minute later when Dawson Klein’s wrist shot from the point deflected off Kelly’s equipment and into the upper corner.

St. Thomas Academy scored 26 seconds after that on Brenden McFadden’s wrist shot.

South defenseman Zach Zemlak held the puck in the offensive zone and found William Moore uncovered in front of the Cadets’ net for a goal that made it 4-2 with 3:26 remaining. Bradley Golant also had an assist. Golant finished off the upset with an empty-net goal with 55.2 seconds remaining.

“We kept getting the puck down deep, forechecking their ‘D’ and playing the way we usually play,” Checco said. “I think we took over the game about the end of the first period.”

Junior goalie Isaiah DiLaura had several difficult stops among his 31 saves, 16 of which came in the first period. “We believe in Isaiah, and he’s been a rock all year,” Bucchino said.

“The first period was when we could have capitalized, and we didn’t,” said St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Greg Vannelli. “When they had their chances, they capitalized. They were really opportunistic.”

Moorhead (23-3-3) defeated Hill-Murray 4-2 in the second game of the afternoon quarterfinal session.