By Matt Popchock
Pittsburgh Central Catholic junior forward James Pozycki came back from a trip to Seven Springs to play in Sunday night’s game and has yet to watch his recording of Saturday’s NHL Winter Classic, which makes his Eric Fehr imitation all the more impressive.
After Pozycki and the Vikings (6-4-3) were forced to overtime when Shaler erased a three-goal deficit, he took advantage of a friendly bounce behind the net and fired the puck into an unprotected cage for a game-winning shorthanded goal 1:26 into the extra frame to give Central a 4-3 victory over the Titans (3-5-2) at the Stage AE Community Rink next to Heinz Field.
There’s an old saying about revenge being a dish best served cold, and on a bitterly cold night in the city this was certainly a savory win for the Vikings against a hated opponent that has had their number.
“Shaler is probably our biggest rival in Section 3, so we wanted to get a ‘W’ against them as best we could,” veteran coach Bob Kennedy said of the Titans, who have dropped five in a row since collecting an early-season win over his kids.
Central Catholic, the consensus No. 5 in Class AAA, has now earned points in six of its last seven outings, remains seven points behind undefeated Fox Chapel in Section 3, and vaulted to sixth in the overall standings. Shaler now sits seven points back of Central for second place in Section 3 and fell into a tie with Plum for third place. It should also be noted the Vikings have played more games than any team in the classification.
The section rivals also met in an outdoor game last season, a decisive win by then-Penguins Cup champ Shaler at North Park in the 2010 PIHL Outdoor Charity Series, and the Vikings immediately rewrote that script. Pozycki broke into the left wing circle and stunned goaltender Steve Defibaugh with a wrist shot to his glove side just 70 seconds in to give Central a 1-0 lead.
Defibaugh would be the victim of controversy a mere two minutes later when he and his teammates thought a loose puck right in front of the net had been covered. However, Eric Smith, one of four Vikings who entered the new calendar year with eight goals, poked it through the second-string netminder for his ninth of the campaign. Shaler players argued collectively from their bench, but officials calmly insisted the play stood, giving Pittsburgh Central Catholic a two-goal cushion.
Central also started its No. 2 goalie, JV move-up Brandon Savka, who remained equal to the task as the Titans tried to get their own offense going, and Savka’s teammates remained the more opportunistic bunch. Pozycki found another loose puck in the slot area and initially appeared to fire it into the twine himself, but it was later determined Smith got the last stick on it for his second of the night, and suddenly the Vikings led the reeling Titans 3-0.
That seemed to be the wake-up call Shaler needed, as it drew the game’s first penalty and used its normally reliable special teams to finally get on the board. Forward Jacob Hetz camped out beside Savka and, conjuring up memories of Sidney Crosby’s famous hands, deflected a shot-pass from the left point behind the helpless goaltender for his team-leading 11th goal of the year with 2:36 left. It also marked the 11th power play tally by Shaler, with a team-best five belonging to the big sophomore.
The Titans had seized momentum and, inspired by head coach Curt Hetz’s vociferous pep talk between periods, kept the snowball rolling into the second. They created a three-on-one and Dillon Burkharth, flying through the left wing circle, wasted no time one-timing a pass from the right side behind Savka for his seventh of the year, which trimmed the Vikings’ lead to 3-2 with still 11:41 showing on the second period clock.
When Burkharth found himself in the box a short time later Defibaugh made some key saves and his penalty killers handled their business, allowing the Titans a golden opportunity to tie the game when Dalton Shiring was awarded a penalty shot, having been tripped on a breakaway with just under three minutes to go till the ice cut. Shiring deked to his left but could not elevate the puck beyond a well-positioned Savka, whose save allowed Central to take its one-goal lead back to the dressing room.
It looked like that stop might be the difference-maker, as Shaler continued pressing in the third period but had nothing to show for its ramped-up effort. However, Brian Stein, who had scored twice in a 3-2 victory over the Vikings in Harmarville Nov. 8 and played another fine game against them Sunday, finally found the net with seven minutes left in regulation. His shot from the middle of the offensive zone was denied by Savka, then Stein drove the net, and he smashed home the rebound to tie the game, his eighth goal of the season.
But when a team is amidst a hot streak the hockey gods always seem to smile upon it in the end, and that was the case early in OT when Dylan Junker was sent off for elbowing with 1:16 gone by, and the Shaler power play was put in the driver’s seat. Off the ensuing faceoff the Vikings cleared the puck the length of the ice, and Defibaugh went behind his net to play it. The puck squirted past Defibaugh and his defenseman, and right to the tape of Pocyzki, whose forechecking created an easy tenth goal of the season and marked a rousing conclusion to a unique event.
“When [Defibaugh] went to play it and it bounced off his stick, I knew I had to put it in,” Pocyzki said afterward before getting lightheartedly showered with water bottles by a couple teammates. “We knew coming in we’d get our chances by taking the body and wearing them down, and that’s what happened.”
“I told them we had to get back to our game, which, mainly, was taking the body,” Kennedy affirmed, describing the pre-overtime address to his team.
The one they call “Boomer,” for his part, enjoyed himself from start to finish as his team reversed its fortunes in outdoor play.
“You couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said of the program’s involvement in the first-ever PIHL Winter Classic. “It’s been a lot of fun being out here.”
For Kennedy and the Vikings, who have made their rocky start to 2010-11 a fading memory, it’s a lot of fun being anywhere right now.
BY THE WAY:
*Pozycki’s game-winning goal was his team-leading third shorthanded marker of the season, which ties him with Christian Wirginis of Fox Chapel for the Class AAA lead. Pozycki’s six overall special teams goals ties him with Cody Bachman of Butler for most in that category as well.
*Central’s last victory over Shaler was a 5-1 decision at BladeRunners Ice Complex in Harmarville Dec. 3, 2007. Prior to this regular season the Vikings had gone 0-3 against the Titans in each of the last two.
*Shaler will try to snap its skid Thursday when it travels to Mercyhurst to take on McDowell in non-section play, while Pittsburgh Central Catholic seeks a three-game win streak tonight when it hosts Butler at BladeRunners in Harmarville.
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!