By Matt Popchock
There doesn’t seem to be much that can stop the consensus number one team in PIHL Class A these days.
Single-degree temperatures? Negative wind chill? A sheet of ice bigger than any Olympic playing surface? Piece of cake for Mars.
The Planets (15-0-0) remained one of three undefeated squads in the entire league and made the long trip from Johnstown a somewhat unpleasant one for consensus No. 4 Westmont Hilltop, breaking open a frigid Friday night game in the third period for a 5-0 stonewalling of the Hilltoppers (11-3-0) at North Park Ice Rink to open the 2011 PIHL Outdoor Charity Series.
This time, it was assistant captain Rob Sigurdsson’s turn to play hero, recording the second Mars hat trick of the week, which included an early game-winning goal, in the final frame.
“Winning [at this event] is definitely special, this year and last year, but especially this year,” the senior winger said, “because Westmont is a great team. This time I think it was a bigger battle for us.”
Nevertheless, the non-section matchup was just as much a victory for the enthused visitors. Both programs raised money via ticket sales for the UPMC Hillman Center for Cancer Research in memory of former Pittsburgh Penguins staffer Dave “Ziggy” Ziegler.
A popular member of the Johnstown hockey community, Ziegler died of brain cancer last August. Westmont captain Andy Herbert, who helped the cause, participated in a pre-game ceremony that included Penguins forward Mike Rupp and members of the Ziegler family.
The Hilltoppers were fired up to play for their old friend as emotions ran high and both teams occupied the penalty box throughout the first period. Sigurdsson got Mars on the board at even strength by taking a slap shot that deflected high in the air off the blocker of junior goaltender Adam Ayre and trickled over the goal line, and Joe Bender added a shorthanded tally from between the circles later in the frame.
Ayre made 28 saves in defeat and kept the deficit at 2-0 through two periods with several key stops and yeoman’s work from his fellow penalty killers, especially during a two-man advantage where Mars threatened to break the dam. But whenever Westmont Hilltop got a power play, the Planets’ big, physical defensemen clogged the zone and rarely let anyone near Tyler Stepke, Class A’s across-the-board goaltending leader, who finished with 17 saves and shutout number four on the year.
The Planets erased any doubt about the outcome at the beginning of the third period, as they won the opening faceoff and Sigurdsson beat Ayre with a wrist shot off a nice setup from Class A scoring leader Elliot Tisdale, who finished with three assists.
Sigurdsson completed his aforementioned hat trick with his 15th goal of the season, another slap shot, this time from center point, on a Mars power play. It was his third power play goal and 17th overall for the Planets, who ranked third in power play productivity before the game.
For the number one defense in the PIHL, their work was basically done, so the number one offense in Class A punctuated the shutout with a second-chance goal by Nick Blaney, who assisted on two previous tallies, from the left side.
“We have some of the fastest forwards in the league,” Sigurdsson said. “Once we’re able to break out, we just go to the net, and that’s how we get our goals.”
With that, a three-game winning streak by the talented and hungry Hilltoppers was halted, giving the rest of the classification just another reason to fear the defending state champs, who have won 27 straight in PIHL play since Jan. 22, 2010.
BY THE WAY:
*Tisdale’s three assists gave him 27 total and 52 points. They widened his lead in the Class A scoring race to eight points over Westmont’s Corey Schafer, who saw his ten-game point streak come to an end.
*The last time the Hilltoppers scored on Mars was in a 6-3 Penguins Cup Quarterfinal loss on Mar. 10, 2009. This marks the third straight season the Planets have shut them out at least once.
*Despite appearing in just seven PIHL games this season, Sigurdsson has posted three hat tricks and five multiple-goal games.
(UPDATE: Mars defeated Hampton in non-section play Monday to remain undefeated, while Westmont Hilltop also won a non-section game, a victory over South Park.)
(Click here to relive any or all of the action from the first game of the Outdoor Charity Series, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.)
For continuing coverage of the 2011 PIHL Outdoor Charity Series, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports soon on 937thefan.com!