By Matt Popchock
Since moving up to Class AAA State College has held its own, but this year the Little Lions clearly have a thing or two to learn about winning tight games. One lesson they can take away from the second night of the PIHL Winter Classic is that, in spite of what its record suggests, few teams in the classification are as sound defensively as Bethel Park.
The Black Hawks (4-3-2) smothered dangerous forwards Ryan Pate and Abe Edson and generated offense from defense, while backup goalie Austin McGinty made 34 saves and made a couple of fortuitous goals stand up in a methodical 3-0 whitewash of State College (3-5-2) in non-section action on the Stage AE Community Rink next to Heinz Field Wednesday.
“Our coaches have been working with us a lot on our defensive game lately,” Brown said. “We really helped out Austin tonight.”
McGinty, still playing in place of injured first-stringer Dillon Ondrako, delivered a solid fundamental game to earn his second win of the season and first-ever varsity shutout. The sophomore and JV call-up needed only a well-placed slapshot from point man Jacob Brown to get the “W,” but just for good measure, Brown added another goal that was later credited to fellow junior Dale Reither, and the Lions, despite having multiple power play opportunities, could never answer.
The 28 goals allowed by Bethel Park remain the fourth-fewest in Class AAA, and with State College also leaning on its own defense, the first period, predictably, was played between the blue lines, though the Lions nearly spoiled McGinty’s shutout on an odd sequence early in the first period.
McGinty stopped a puck and stood still thinking he had frozen it long enough for a faceoff. Suddenly both teams started hacking away right along the goal line, but the Lions couldn’t get it to cross, and McGinty realized what had happened soon enough to clear the loose biscuit. A microcosm of State College’s night, it would be as close as they got until Brown’s game-winner.
With 4:29 left in the first defenseman Lucas Muesser fed Brown at the right point, and Brown stepped into a shot that somehow eluded traffic in front of the Little Lions’ net and stunned goaltender Joe Abruzzo, who stopped 28 shots in a losing effort, couldn’t get to that one, which gave Bethel Park a 1-0 advantage.
“I’ve played a couple of games where they shifted me between forward and defense. They moved me back to defense [tonight], and obviously it worked out well,” Brown said with a smile.
State College, whose 10 power play goals put them among the leaders in the classification, was awarded a two-man advantage that spanned periods one and two, and it was perhaps the best opportunity the team had all night to change the game. But McGinty quietly quieted the Lions, and the Hawks’ defense clogged lanes and kept them wide, forcing them to make low-percentage decisions with the puck.
As a dense frost accumulated on the near boards (causing visibility issues for all) and the temperature dropped, Bethel’s offensive pressure heated up, feeding off the momentum of its PK unit. Midway through the second period Brown was camped out on the left point this time, but the result was the same. He ripped a shot by everybody that Abruzzo couldn’t get to his knees quickly enough to stop, giving the Hawks a 2-0 lead.
During the third period it was determined that puck had glanced off Reither’s stick, erasing Brown’s fifth goal of the season and rewarding Reither, who would later add an empty-netter, with his first of the campaign. Meanwhile, the final frame was more of the same, as the Lions failed to generate a lot of quality scoring chances due to aggressive, physical play by Bethel Park on the back end. The only regrettable moment was a defensive-zone turnover that led to a breakaway at the beginning of the period, but as he had all night, McGinty rose to the challenge.
Veteran head coach Jim McVay once chartered a bus to take his varsity squad to the inaugural NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo. Naturally, McVay’s kids, who were already in high spirits after beating Upper St. Clair before the holiday break, left this outdoor contest in an equally good mood.
“We definitely think we’ve turned a corner here,” Brown said.
BY THE WAY:
*One bright spot for the Little Lions was containing Bethel Park’s leading scorer, Daniel Kucerovy. Kucerovy’s nine goals entering Wednesday put him among the top five in the classification, and his five-game point streak came to an end.
*McGinty’s only other appearance against State College was a 4-2 loss back on Feb. 11 in which he allowed all four Lion goals on 19 shots. Since subbing for Ondrako during a loss to Penn-Trafford Nov. 22, McGinty has allowed just four goals, posting a .954 save percentage.
*Bethel Park begins the second half of its season with another non-section game at Mercyhurst College Ice Rink against McDowell next Monday. State College, which now has just one win in its last six, will try to get back on track against Section 4 rival Norwin at Center Ice in Delmont, with the winner potentially vaulting into first place.
Click here to relive any or all of the action from Wednesday night, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
For continuing coverage of the PIHL Winter Classic, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports next week on 937thefan.com!