By Matt Popchock
One of the most pleasantly surprising stories of the PIHL season, a red-hot start by the Fox Chapel Foxes, shows no sign of ending in the near future.
Enjoying one of their best stretches since the formation of the league, the top-ranked Foxes (9-0-0) rolled to a 3-1 win over the visiting McDowell Trojans, the No. 4 team in Class AAA per MSA Sports, in a non-section contest at Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington Monday evening. Fox Chapel widened its lead over reeling Shaler in Section 3, while the Trojans (5-2-1), who had forged a dead heat with North Allegheny in Section 2 after back-to-back wins, fell for the first time in over a month.
Senior defenseman Will Lorenz provided the game-winning power play goal in the second and assisted on a late tally to keep Fox Chapel undefeated. His team won just about every battle that took place, including the special teams battle; all four goals were scored on the man-advantage. It was fitting Lorenz got to play hero in a game that featured inspired defensive play from both schools, yet never felt as close as the final score.
“We’ve been trying to play a little more systematic hockey, and play a little more as a team [this year],” Fox Chapel’s second-year head coach, Cory Rome, said after the victory. “It’s been a total team effort.”
On a snowy night in western Pennsylvania McDowell’s offense went cold, as the Trojans were forced to play their second straight game without leading scorer Ryan Guzek, who tore his meniscus in a game against Norwin Nov. 22. Rome downplayed the significance of the injury, especially since his team also had to worry about a key loss (second-leading goal scorer Christian Wirginis out with a bad shoulder).
“We’ve still got two or three lines we like to roll every night,” he said. “We’re going to try and impose our will on other teams regardless of what they’re doing.”
The first period played out in unsurprising fashion with the Foxes, the highest-scoring team in the classification with 47 goals entering the game, putting pressure on McDowell and goaltender Andrew Greaves early. Despite ultimately being outshot 12-3 in the frame, the Trojans, thanks to some good work by Greaves and their usually intelligent brand of team defense, weathered the storm, though Fox Chapel eventually took advantage of a cross-checking call against Jared Gillespie.
Late in the Foxes’ power play Colin Cheng left a puck for in the near corner for Daniel Humes, who skated right out in front of Greaves and snuck it through his legs for his team-leading 14th goal of the campaign, giving his team a 1-0 lead with 4:14 left in the period. It was Humes’ fourth power play tally of the season.
“We keep coming out confident and just trying to play our game every night,” said Humes, who also assisted on the game-winning goal. “We just kept working hard [tonight], just like in practice.”
The goal was also an omen, as the second period began with Fox Chapel unable to add to its lead on a couple of frenzied chances, but drawing another penalty with its superior forechecking, a high-sticking call against Bryan Chiffon. Once again, Fox Chapel’s special teams cashed in, as Lorenz settled down a pass from Jacob Friedland right on Greaves’ doorstep and wristed it past the McDowell netminder to make it 2-0 Foxes with 9:53 left. Both of Lorenz’s goals this year have come on the man-advantage.
This prompted veteran head coach Nels White to use his timeout moments later, and the Trojans responded by finally ratcheting up their intensity and generating five of the next six shots on goal. But the Foxes kept McDowell off the board with efficient defense of their own in front of goaltender Tyler Fannie, who went largely untested the first two periods, and Fox Chapel went into the intermission with a two-goal advantage and another power play.
The Foxes could not convert on that opportunity, nor could McDowell when the Trojans finally got their first power play five minutes into the third period on a charging penalty against Brian Hovanec. However, Fox Chapel did collect its third consecutive power play goal with just over five minutes remaining.
Lorenz took a slap shot from center point that was stopped by Greaves, who couldn’t locate the loose puck sitting right behind him in the crease. Craig Mason did, and he tapped it into an open net for his second goal of the year just as a McDowell defender shoved him to his stomach.
Tempers heated up at that moment, as an angry Greaves punched a prone Mason in the back of the head, and Fox Chapel’s Vince Susi took a coincidental minor for retaliation. White eventually decided to pull Greaves with his team on the power play and considerable time left on the clock, and defenseman Jeff Clark beat Fannie, who made 17 saves for his Class AAA-best ninth win, on a wrist shot from the left circle with 64 seconds remaining to ruin the shutout.
That was as close as the game would get for the Section 2 co-leaders, who saw their chances at a three-game winning streak end with one last series of shoving matches in front of their own net.
McDowell will try to rebound next Monday when it takes on third-place Butler in a Section 2 matchup at Ice Connection of Pittsburgh in Valencia, while the Foxes stay at home that same night to face Upper St. Clair in further non-section play.
BY THE WAY:
*If the Foxes run the table they will finish the regular season with 20 wins. That would tie the 2003-04 team for the second-most regular season victories in program history and the most since the formation of the PIHL. Fox Chapel has only won 20 games in the last three seasons combined.
*Humes has a goal in every game this season and trails only Class AAA scoring leader Kyle Rosendale of Hempfield in the goal column. Humes remains second in the overall points race and now has multiple points in six straight.
*Clark now owns a three-game goal streak and five-game point streak. His longest point streak of the previous regular season lasted four games (Feb. 18-Mar. 1).
Click here to relive any or all of the action from our Game of the Week, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
For continuing coverage of the PIHL and Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!