By Matt Popchock
Before the two biggest stars in the NHL square off at Heinz Field, some of the best high school hockey players in the area will do the same right next door.
Monday night marks the beginning of the first-ever PIHL Winter Classic, five games spanning three of the league’s four classifications to be played on the Stage AE Community Rink adjacent to Heinz Field.
At the end of the 2007-08 regular season, in honor of the inaugural NHL Winter Classic, which featured the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League began its own tradition of playing outdoor games. That tradition continues this season starting with the North Shore event, with another series of outdoor games coming in late January to raise money for multiple charities.
Mr. High School Sports now gives you a glimpse of the teams and some of the star players who will be taking it outside…
MONDAY, DECEMBER 27 – 9:40 PM
ALLDERDICE DRAGONS (0-9-0) VS. CARRICK COUGARS (2-6-2)
(OPEN CLASS, SECTION 2)
Two programs that have enjoyed their share of success in the past decade have fallen on hard times, but this war of attrition between section foes means more than meets the eye. In addition to bragging rights between the City League squads, they each need this game in order to avoid letting their Nailers Cup Playoff pursuits get too mathematically out of hand. Furthermore, it’s an opportunity for the Dragons, who have allowed an Open Class-high 89 goals, to earn their first victory since rejoining the PIHL this fall. Only one team in the classification has scored fewer goals than the ‘Dice’s 13, and not far behind them are the Cougars with just 26 total tallies, as their offense has struggled to match the execution of an improved defense. Ryan Radovich, with a team-leading six goals, will try to spark Allderdice and himself after beginning his year on a four-game goal streak. Carrick, which has gone winless in three straight since blanking the Dragons 8-0 Dec. 3 at Ice Castle, will seek help from Giovanni Oliverio, who is second on the team with five goals, including a hat trick in that meeting.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 29 – 8:00 PM
STATE COLLEGE LITTLE LIONS (3-4-2) VS. BETHEL PARK BLACK HAWKS (3-3-2)
(CLASS AAA, NON-SECTION)
Both these teams, who were Penguins Cup Playoff combatants two seasons ago and would meet again if they started today, first have to find stability before they can think about a return trip to the postseason, and they entered their holiday break in opposite directions despite both flirting with the .500 mark. Bethel Park gave itself a nice ego boost with a decisive win over Upper St. Clair, a preseason favorite in Class AAA, moving to within two points of their Section 1 rivals for second place, while State College dropped a tough one to another Section 1 squad, defending Penguins Cup champ Canon-McMillan, leaving the Lions with just one win in their last five outings. Expect this blue-collar matchup to be won or lost in the neutral zone and to come down to which team can outwork the other, as the Hawks have allowed just 28 goals, fourth fewest in Class AAA, and none of State College’s losses have come by more than two goals. The Little Lions hope Abe Edson can get his scoring touch back after being held off the stat sheet the last two games; his double hat trick against Hempfield Dec. 9 was all he needed to take over the team lead in goals with nine and vault into the top ten in scoring in the classification with 17 points. Jim McVay might have found a more under-the-radar weapon in Daniel Kucerovy, who leads Bethel with nine goals in just six games and has recorded multiple points in five straight.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 29 – 10:00 PM
WEST ALLEGHENY INDIANS (8-1-0) VS. BISHOP CANEVIN CRUSADERS (7-2-2)
(CLASS AA, NON-SECTION)
If the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt is true, be prepared for a particularly intense contest between these two Penguins Cup contenders, who saw each other just a week ago in Mount Lebanon, a 5-2 triumph by the host Crusaders that ended in a flurry of fists near their own blue line. Canevin recovered nicely that night after seeing its season-opening eight-game winning streak come to an end, and will look to take an outright lead over Chartiers Valley in Section 3 while also going for its fifth win in six tries against teams currently ranked in the MSA Sports Top Ten. Meanwhile, the Section 2 front-runners are looking to make a rebound of their own after seeing their nine-game unbeaten streak snapped last Monday, and the Indians also aim to open up a four-point lead on streaking Montour. New coach Tim Veach has brought a new line of thinking to West A, one that seems to rely on offense feeding more off the momentum of responsible defense, but in order to keep pace with the Crusaders they’ll need more firepower from a group that has managed just 35 goals, the fewest of any PIHL section leader. However, if history is any guide, Indians goaltender Jason Kumpfmiller, who is second among Class AA starters in wins (7), GAA (2.05), and save percentage (.929), will keep his team in the hunt. He’ll need to keep an eye on Frank Vance, Bishop Canevin’s leading scorer with nine goals and 22 points, as he moved the puck well in the last meeting and is riding a five-game point streak.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 2 – 7:00 PM
CANON-McMILLAN BIG MACS (9-1-1) VS. FOX CHAPEL FOXES (10-0-0)
(CLASS AAA, NON-SECTION)
Red is one of the predominant colors on the road uniforms Fox Chapel will wear next Sunday, it’s the color of roses, which is one of several words that succinctly describes the Foxes’ campaign to this point, and it’s also the color of the light behind the net, which the team has lit a Class AAA-best 55 times during its surprising journey to the top of the Section 3 standings. Right behind them are the Big Macs with 51, but this outdoor-bound bunch hasn’t picked up where its championship run left off by simply playing pond hockey. Canon-Mac has also stayed atop Section 1 with the help of a skilled and smart defensive corps that is ranked third in the classification with 22 goals allowed, and in order to defeat one of the five remaining unbeaten PIHL members, they have to continue their strong support of one another. Whichever team establishes a forecheck and comes out on top in offensive zone time will also, in all probability, come out on top on the scoreboard, which is why guys like defenseman Alexander Baskakov become all the more important. The second-year star is second on the Big Macs with seven goals and 16 points, he can handle his business in his own end, then join the rush and also provide valuable leadership to a power play that has produced 13 goals. Not to be outdone, the Foxes have notched a Class AAA-best 15 goals on the man-advantage, and Daniel Humes has been a key contributor. He’s second in the classification in goals (14) and points (30), and it’s crucial for Canon-Mac to shut him down, which might be a tall order with Humes having scored multiple points in each of his last seven.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 2 – 9:10 PM
SHALER TITANS (3-4-2) VS. PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC VIKINGS (5-4-3)
(CLASS AAA, SECTION 3)
Coincidentally these teams met in an outdoor game last season, and the suddenly reeling Titans, whose Section 3 title defense got off to a much more promising start, are hoping this contest yields a similar result. Shaler, which has three games in hand, has dropped four in a row, including a pair to top-ranked Fox Chapel, and as a result, Pittsburgh Central Catholic has pulled five points ahead of Shaler in the battle for second place in the section with points in six of its last seven games, including a confidence-building win over North Allegheny. The Vikings have already bowed once to this Shaler team once in Harmarville Nov. 8, but this is a different squad than the one the Titans whipped on a frigid night at North Park back in February. They seem to have found an answer to their problems between the pipes, and their offensive attack is much more balanced. Kevin Kline has earned a point in a season-high four straight games, and he is one of four Vikings to have registered eight goals. As usual, Shaler will seek answers from brothers Josh and Jacob Hetz, who have combined for 12 goals and 21 points, but Jacob is the one with the finishing touch. In addition to his strong special teams play he leads the team with 11 goals, though he has been held scoreless in consecutive games for the first time in the wake of a season-opening six-game goal streak.
For complete coverage of the PIHL Winter Classic be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the week!