By Matt Popchock
Although the home team took care of business last Thursday night, there was a sense of unfinished business from those occupying the home team’s locker room at Rostraver Ice Garden.
“We just didn’t play our game tonight, and it ended up being closer than it had to be,” said defenseman and captain R.J. Kendi. “But we won, so we just have to go back to work next game.”
Despite outshooting the upstart South Fayette Lions (11-7-2) by an exact three-to-one ratio, the Serra Catholic Eagles (13-4-1) had to survive a last-minute onslaught to earn a 4-3 victory at the Belle Vernon venue and capture their fourth consecutive section title.
“We definitely learned we have to bury our chances and not take any teams lightly,” Kendi added. “They came back, and we shouldn’t have let them.”
Senior goaltender Michael Coyne was nonetheless brilliant for South Fayette, making 47 saves, many of them eyebrow-raisers, and the Lions got some opportunistic offense to keep this meeting of Class A Section 3 front-runners from getting completely out of hand. But a 6-on-4 power play in the final minute of regulation with Coyne pulled failed to produce the tying goal.
The Eagles had seen this movie before, having rallied from two goals down to beat South Fayette 5-4 in overtime at BladeRunners in Bethel Park the previous week, despite outshooting the Lions by a wide margin. As the first period unfolded, Serra Catholic seemed determined to make the ending to the sequel less dramatic.
Coyne did his very best to rewrite the script, as he turned aside the first ten shots of the game, but Serra finally got what it probably deserved midway through the frame when JV call-up Jacob Gunn drove the net and one-timed a pass from behind the net to give his team a 1-0 lead. The goaltender took a late slashing penalty, and with just six seconds left Zach Schindler make Coyne pay by redirecting Kendi’s slap shot from the right point into the twine for a two-goal cushion after one.
Just 2:42 after picking up the primary assist on Schindler’s power play tally, the junior blue-liner went coast to coast, got positioning on his defender, and beat Coyne in tight on the backhand–an impressive individual effort that gave the Eagles a 3-0 second-period lead and seemed like the beginning of the end for South Fayette at the time. However, Coyne settled down, and the Lions, once again, played the rope-a-dope game to near perfection.
Team scoring leader Nick Shultz turned in his own nice effort with a pretty backhand goal from the left wing circle that cleanly beat Garrett Hudson, who had seldom been tested to that point, to get South Fayette on the board with 2:44 till the ice cut. Ironically, this time it was Kendi who was assessed a late slashing penalty, and with 16 seconds left in the period Brian Bodine’s seeing-eye slap shot from the right side got by Hudson. Suddenly the Lions, a team that had been manhandled for the better part of two periods–a team that had dressed only eight skaters–were only down 3-2 after two.
The heroes of the previous meeting would again provide the difference for Serra Catholic. Sophomore forward and leading scorer Tyler Speis, the OT hero from the first contest, camped out behind Coyne with under ten minutes left in regulation. He fed Jay Leppo, who netted a second-period hat trick in that game, and the senior defenseman beat Coyne from point blank range to give Serra a 4-2 advantage.
“It’s all about down-low support,” said Leppo, who has now scored six goals and one assist in nine games since rejoining the Eagles mid-season. “I called to Tyler for the puck, he made the perfect pass, and it was an easy shot from there.”
It seemed as though Coyne might single-handedly delay Serra’s coronation, but a second-chance score along the goal line from his captain, Dan Curtin, three minutes later was not enough to prevent the Eagles from joining the elite company of Mars, Hampton, and Kittanning, all of whom have wrapped up section titles in Class A.
Not surprisingly, this accomplished team, which retains its Post-Gazette No. 5 ranking and has now won ten section titles in the last 11 seasons, remains as humble and focused as ever.
“It’s nice to get it out of the way,” Kendi said. “But we’ve still got a season and playoff to finish.”
BY THE WAY:
*With full-time head coach Brian Boehm serving a suspension, Serra Catholic assistant coach Dennis Tokarski assumed the interim coaching tag for this game. Joining him on Serra’s bench was fellow (regular) assistant Chris Kraemer.
*The two assists by Speis gave him 36 points (21 G + 15 A) on the year, keeping him in the Class A top ten and extending his point streak to 14 games, though it was his first game with multiple assists since Nov. 18.
*Leppo now has 128 career points as a PIHL player, which, according to Serra Catholic’s unofficial team site, puts him among the program’s top five all-time scorers.
(Click here to relive any or all of the action from our Game of the Week, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.)
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