By Matt Popchock
It’s tough to tell which was tougher for Baldwin to deal with last Friday, Upper St. Clair’s team speed or Upper St. Clair’s team chemistry.
The heroes were many for the number one offense in Class AAA, as the Panthers (9-5-0) got a hat trick from senior forward Justin Selep and a running clock late in the second period of a 12-2 romp over the last-place Highlanders (1-12-0) in the finale to the 2011 PIHL Outdoor Charity Series at South Park Ice Rink.
“Justin played really well tonight,” head coach Larry Marks said. “It’s unfortunate he misses some games because of the junior team he plays on, because he’s a dominant player when he wants to be.”
A steady snowfall was of little concern to USC, which built leads of 4-0 and 8-1 through the first two frames to collect its third straight win and creep within four points of second-place Bethel Park in Section 1.
“Offensively, we’re pretty gifted,” Marks said. “We’re pretty fast up front, so we just told the kids to use their speed and go wide, to really use the [bigger] ice.”
“We didn’t really know what to expect before we practiced here last week,” Selep said. “I think it was very beneficial playing on that ice once, and I think it gave us an edge.”
The Panthers are holding down the No. 5 overall spot, while Baldwin has lost three straight since beating Hempfield for its only win of the season.
Both teams raised money for the Paul Sciullo Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was established last season by the PIHL in memory of the Pittsburgh Police officer who lost his life in the spring 2009 police shootings. Two decades ago, Scuillo played in the league, serving as Pittsburgh Central Catholic’s team captain.
Selep got the party started with a power play goal 2:39 into the first from Stephen Gielarowski, who finished with a pair of helpers to go with his two goals. It was the first of five special teams tallies by Upper St. Clair on the night.
Selep’s fellow senior and All-Star, C.J. Murray, scored shorthanded with 10:20 left, and Gieralowski scored from the right wing circle just 40 seconds later. Forty-two seconds later Ryan Haleski got credit for a goal initially awarded to Robbie Markwell to make it 4-0 Panthers, at which point Zach Christman relieved starting goalie Mike Cundra.
All-Star forward Neil Isler netted his team-leading ninth goal of the season on a breakaway to spoil Michael Stine’s shutout and give the Highlanders a flicker of hope, but USC snuffed it out moments before the end of the period as Stine, who finished with 20 saves, fed Selep, and Selep went coast-to-coast to notch another short-handed goal.
Mike Segerdahl and Markwell gave the Panthers a comfy 7-1 cushion in the second period before Selep completed the hat trick with his 11th of the campaign to enact the USA Hockey mercy rule.
“Hat tricks start with teammates,” Selep said. “C.J. Murray, Parker Phillips, Timmy Shoup…you can’t score a hat trick by yourself. You have to have others contributing, and I give credit to them.”
He set up Gielarowski’s second tally 2:33 into the third period before Luke Stork found the net less than a minute later for the first of his two third-period strikes with Cundra back in goal. Isler would beat backup Mike Ambrose on a penalty shot with 8:19 left before Stork and Dan Crockett rounded out the scoring shortly thereafter.
Not the fiercest challenge the Panthers will face moving forward, but it certainly was a nice ego boost for a team that seems to be coming together at the right time.
“It gives us confidence going into the next game [against Canon-McMillan], and they’re a 180 degrees from Baldwin. But if we keep playing as a team we’ll be all right.”
“The kids had a blast,” Marks said. “They were excited with the Penguins being a part of it, and we were happy to play for the charity.”
BY THE WAY:
*Selep also finished with two assists, giving him five points on the night and 13 points (7 G + 6 A) in the month of January.
*The only other time Stine allowed just one goal to an opponent was USC’s first meeting with Baldwin, a 13-1 Panther victory Dec. 2.
*Only undefeated Fox Chapel now has more shorthanded goals in Class AAA (8) than Upper St. Clair (7).
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!