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Piazza and Bartone Lead Cats to a 6-4 Win Over St. Francis

By Joe Mertens '15, 03/10/24, 11:30AM EDT


In a barn burner of a game, the Wildcats survive and advance to the State Championship to face University School.

COLUMBUS, OH - After a 6-1 dominating victory in the OHSAA Regional Final against St. Edward, the Wildcats returned to Columbus for the Frozen Four for the 13th time in program history. The Ice Cats would draw a familiar foe in the Toledo St. Francis Knights in the State Semifinal at Nationwide Arena. 

The Cats hosted the Knights back in January, and it was an offensive explosion that saw the good guys come away with a 6-4 win. That January match-up would foreshadow what was to come in the State Tournament with a berth to the State Final on the line. 

After a heartbreaking loss in last year's State Semifinal to Olentangy Liberty, the Wildcats were primed to return to the State Championship game for the first time since the 2018-19 season.

It didn't take long for the Wildcats to set up their offensive attack, as just 2:10 minutes into the game, captain Dario Piazza put one in the back of the net. Knights goalie Nick Barkhimer saved an initial shot by Braden Esenwine, but the puck remained loose for Piazza to sneak in the game's opening goal. 

Unfortunately for the Cats, it didn't take the Knights to respond as within 17 seconds of Piazza's goal, Nathan Kozma scored past Dominic Filizetti to knot the game at 1. 

At the 8:38 mark of the first period, Neal Bartone would put the Cats back on top as he cruised past the Knights' defense and put the puck in the back of the net. 

Once again, that lead didn't last long for the Ice Cats as Jamison Rose put in his first of two goals for the Knights in the game with 7:38 remaining in the first. 

Bartone would respond with 5:37 to play on a 4-on-4 power play in the opening period. As a Knights player dove to disrupt the Wildcats' offensive attack, Piazza gained possession and found Bartone in front of the net. #5 would score his second goal of the period as the puck snuck right past Barkhimer. 

An eventful first period would come to a close and a total of five goals were scored, but the Wildcats had the advantage with a 3-2 lead heading into the first intermission. 

The second period would be a mess for the Wildcats as they could not escape the penalty box. The Cats committed five total penalties, which put them at a disadvantage throughout the second period. The Wildcats would take a 4-2 lead with 11:31 remaining in the period before the penalty fest when Esenwine ripped a pass to Adam Mustafa, who rocketed a one-timer past the out-stretched arm of Barkhimer. 

After Mustafa's goal, the Knights would turn to Riley Kilburn to take over in the net, a move that began to turn the tides of the State Semifinal for St. Francis. 

Piazza would serve two minutes for tripping and Christian Sidoti served two minutes for slashing. That would not hurt the Wildcats, as they were able to kill those penalties. Bartone would receive a 15-minute major after a slash and misconduct, which put the Cats down to four on the ice. After a couple of saves by Filizetti, the Knights broke through with a Drew Tucker goal to make the score 4-3 in favor of the Wildcats with 3:27 to play.

SIBN Players of the Game vs. St. Francis: Dario Piazza and Neal Bartone

Sam Elwell would be called for cross-checking, putting the Wildcats down two men on the ice. 24 seconds after Tucker's goal, the Knights would tie the game at four with a power play goal from Rose. 

Despite a rough patch in the second frame, the Wildcats were able to navigate the adversity and keep the score tied at four going into the second intermission. 

As the Wildcats returned to the ice for the final period of regulation, it was sweaty palm time inside Nationwide Arena. The Cats sought to avoid a second straight heartbreak in the State Semifinal. 

With just 1:13 off the clock in the third period, senior Zach Baker sent in a shot near the boards that deflected off Kilburn and into the net to give the Cats a 5-4 lead. 

Throughout the third period, the Cats were disciplined and played smart, controlling the puck and taking time off the clock. The Knights had multiple opportunities to find the equalizer, but Filizetti's solid play kept them from tying the game. The senior goaltender would save all nine shots that were sent his way in the final frame. 

The Cats would seal the deal at the 2:14 mark of the third period as Piazza collected his second goal of the contest on a beautiful pass from Esenwine, who notched his third assist to make the score 6-4. 

The final horn would ring out at Nationwide Arena and the celebration from the Wildcats side began as for the first time since 2019, the Cats punched their ticket to the State Championship. 

It will be the rubber match to decide the State Championship as the Wildcats will face a powerhouse in the University School Preppers, who come into Sunday with a 35-3-0 record. US defeated Saint Ignatius on December 28 with a 5-4 final, but the Cats got their revenge in the GOHL Cup Championship on January 21 with a 1-0 victory. 

These two programs last met in the OHSAA State Championship in 2016, where the Wildcats prevailed with a 4-3 victory. 

The puck drop from Nationwide Arena is at 1 p.m., and the Cats are seeking their eighth State Championship in program history.