By Matt Popchock
The first game of the last night of the PIHL Winter Classic was a possible Penguins Cup preview between the two top-ranked teams in Class AAA. Not surprisingly, the number one team in the classification played like a number one team, but in doing so, it also made the number two team look like a distant number two.
Fox Chapel junior goaltender Tyler Fannie stood tall to pick up his Class AAA-leading 11th win of the season, an unexpectedly easy 6-2 triumph over the Canon-McMillan Big Macs (9-2-1) in a non-section contest on the Stage AE Community Rink next to Heinz Field early Sunday evening.
The onslaught came from all directions, as five different players scored for the Foxes (11-0-0), and senior forward and team scoring leader Daniel Humes bookended the effort with two goals, marking his fifth multiple-goal game this season. Fox Chapel remains one of only five PIHL teams without a loss, and it rudely interrupted a three-game unbeaten streak by the Penguins Cup champs, lighting them up for more goals than any previous opponent in almost two calendar years.
It was an uncommonly rough night for starting goaltender Ryan Palonis, ranked third in the classification in GAA and save percentage entering the weekend. He allowed five of those six before being yanked by head coach Yuri Krivokhija, only to be reinserted before the start of the third period.
Part of the problem was Canon-Mac seemed caught off guard by the Foxes’ athleticism and energy level at both ends, and their ability to quickly turn defense into offense also helped lead to the senior netminder’s undoing.
Both were evident when Fannie made a beautiful stop on a wide-open Jordan McKown while Humes snuck behind the rest of the Big Macs. He took a lead pass and beat Palonis cleanly on a breakaway for a 1-0 Fox Chapel advantage with 11:17 left in the first.
Fox Chapel came in as the top-scoring team in Class AAA with 55 goals, four ahead of Canon-McMillan, and it added to both leads just a minute and a half later. The Foxes drew the game’s first penalty with their relentless attack, but not before JV call-up Max Dym sniped a wrist shot that gave his team a 2-0 edge before the delayed whistle, ending a drought of eight games without a goal.
“That’s one of the things we’ve been practicing a lot…holding our positions on the forecheck,” Fox Chapel head coach Cory Rome said afterward. “We want to spread out the other team, and our kids have been doing a good job of that this season.”
Shots on goal for the opening frame were only 9-8 in favor of Fox Chapel, so on paper Canon-McMillan was still very much alive, but the real crusher came with just 13 seconds till the buzzer. Jacob Friedland registered his 11th tally of the season at that point, stealing the puck in Canon-Mac territory and surprising Palonis with a backhander from which the Big Macs never recovered.
They turned up the heat on Fannie in the second, but Craig Mason lit a fire under his own team’s fanny when he scored from close range, his fifth goal of the season, to give Fox Chapel a 4-0 lead with 8:55 left in the period. After a Canon-McMillan timeout the Foxes sprung Bryan Hovanec on a breakaway just over a minute later, and Hovanec cashed in with his second of the campaign, giving Fox Chapel a strangely comfortable lead against a talented defensive corps.
The strange got stranger after Palonis took a seat on the bench. The Big Macs went on the power play, and Fannie misjudged a dump-in attempt by Anthony Tonkovich that trickled into the net from center ice to finally get Canon-Mac on the board with seven minutes remaining. However, the Foxes answered the blooper-reel goal right back with a rare three-against-five shorthanded goal, as Humes beat backup goalie Ryan Christian off an offensive zone faceoff for his team-leading 16th with 5:46 left.
Canon-McMillan eagerly responded 64 seconds later with a power play goal from Carmen Dalesandro, his seventh overall and second on special teams this year, but the Big Macs could get no closer despite carrying a 24-22 edge in shots into what proved to be an uneventful final period.
“We had a bit of a lull in the middle of the second, which seems to be standard for us,” Rome said. “But I thought our guys did a good job holding it down in the third.”
We’ve seen Fox Chapel win inside and outside its section, we’ve seen the top-ranked Foxes play with the best teams in its classification, and now we’ve seen them win outside, in less-than-comfortable conditions.
If what transpired on Sunday continues into the second half of the season, we might very well see them win…elsewhere.
BY THE WAY:
*With his two-goal effort Humes extended his streak of multi-point games to eight in a row. His 16 goals rank second in Class AAA, though he remains far behind overall leader Kyle Rosendale of Hempfield (25).
*Fannie’s goals-against average held steady at 1.98, still fourth-best among Class AAA first-string goalies. He has now played exactly 500 minutes this season, second-most of any goaltender in the PIHL’s three “pure” classifications.
*Fox Chapel puts its perfect record right back on the line Monday night when it hosts Penn-Trafford at Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington, while Canon-McMillan visits Seneca Valley, the team it beat for its first-ever gold medals, at BladeRunners in Warrendale Tuesday.
Click here to relive any or all of the action from the final night of the PIHL Winter Classic, 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!