Top-seeded Thomas Jefferson fights off Hempfield upset bid in Penguins Cup playoffs

Monday, March 7, 2022 | 10:14 PM

Six minutes into its postseason opener Monday night, Thomas Jefferson faced the challenge of an early three-goal deficit.

Twenty seconds into overtime, the top-seeded Jaguars were the ones celebrating a grueling comeback victory as Nick Stock completed the hat trick to secure a 7-6 win over eighth-seeded Hempfield in the quarterfinals of the PIHL Class 2A Penguins Cup playoffs at the Ice Castle.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt,” said Stock, a senior who added a pair of second-period goals for the Jaguars (18-1). “I’ve never personally had one of those moments in my life and I’m glad that, in my last year here, I was able to experience that and help send the boys to the next round.”

Though they never led in the game, the Jaguars dominated in the shot department, holding a 52-27 advantage over the Spartans (9-10).

In overtime, TJ didn’t draw up a specific play off the opening faceoff. Stock and company simply had faith in their ability to make something happen offensively.

“We kinda went in blind,” Stock said. “We didn’t draw up anything special. We just know that when we play our game, we’re just as good if not better than any team in this league.”

Despite the loss, Hempfield gave TJ all it could handle, especially early.

The Spartans scored 10 seconds into the game as Logan Eisaman snuck a shot past TJ netminder Billy Siemon for a 1-0 lead. Tristan Lloyd and Aiden Dunlap picked up assists on the goal.

Just over a minute later, a wrap-around goal by Nick Bruno made it a two-goal margin and, four and a half minutes after, Nick Eberhardt netted a power-play tally to push the lead to three with 11:15 to go in the period.

“I told our guys winning championships is not easy,” TJ coach John Zeiler said. “Everyone is hunting for you when you’re the top seed, and it’s tough. We really fought adversity tonight.”

With just under seven minutes left in the opening stanza, TJ found a way to finally take advantage on one of its 16 first-period shots. Brett Smith, a senior defenseman who was a difference-maker in the offensive zone, snapped a shot that sailed past the blocker of Hempfield goaltender Zack Francisco to cut the Jaguars’ deficit to 3-1.

After the Spartans pushed their lead to 4-1 with a second-period goal by Tyler Planey on a two-on-one feed from Zach Ridilla, TJ scored twice within a minute and a half. Andrew Oliver scored on a deep wrister before Stock capitalized on a rebound chance to make it 4-3 with 4:33 on the clock.

The Spartans responded 33 seconds later as Ridilla took advantage of yet another two-on-one chance, burying a shot past Siemon to make it a two-goal game.

Before the intermission, TJ cut it to one again as Stock scored his second goal off a pass from Scotty Allan with 2:45 remaining in the period.

“There is no panic on our bench. We have a lot of veteran guys who have been there,” Zeiler said. “We try to be upbeat and let them know that we’ve got this. They just kept plugging away.”

Hempfield extended its advantage to two less than seven minutes into the third period when Damion Busch scored off assists from Bruno and Ridilla.

Less than a minute later, Jack Stock got in on the scoring for TJ as he followed a faceoff win with a goal on a backhand to cut the lead to one again.

Colby Bilski came up with the equalizer two minutes after Jack Stock’s tally. The Jaguars’ captain blasted a wrister over the glove of Francisco to tie the score with 7:27 to go in regulation.

Francisco finished with 45 saves for Hempfield, and Siemon had 21 for TJ.

With the win, the Jaguars advance to the semifinals to face either No. 4 Penn-Trafford or No. 5 Meadville in the semifinals March 15 at the RMU Island Sports Center. P-T and Meadville face off in a quarterfinal matchup Tuesday night.

“I’d rather fight adversity now because going into the next game, we’re going to have that compete level,” Zeiler said. “If you beat a team 10-1 or 7-1, you can tend to go into the next game relaxed. Hempfield is a really good hockey team and we knew that coming in. They’re very well coached, they work hard, and they have talent. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy and we’re blessed to come out on top.”

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