By Matt Popchock
While the high school basketball playoffs trudge on through rain and snow, the final two weeks of the 2010-11 PIHL regular season will set the tone for the Penguins Cup, Chiefs Cup, and Nailers Cup Playoff tournaments that will soon coincide. With so little time to go till postseason hockey, several questions linger, such as, can anyone beat the hottest team in Class AAA? Who will be playing on March 5th, and who will be staying home? And who will win the few section titles that remain up for grabs? It’s time to answer those questions, so without further ado, here’s what’s coming to a rink near you:
CLASS A, SECTION 4
Freeport (5-12-1) @ Westmont Hilltop (14-4-1) (7:20) – Cambria County War Memorial
It’s officially crunch time for the Yellowjackets, who need wins in two of their three remaining regular season games, which include this trip to Johnstown, to qualify for the Penguins Cup Playoffs. Freeport trails Knoch in the points column but has two games in hand over that team and leads them in point percentage for the 12th and final spot, making its early season sweep of a home-and-home with the Knights appear critical. The Jackets are still looking for a confidence-boosting win over an upper-echelon opponent, but they did give the Hilltoppers a handful in the previous two meetings, an early-season 2-0 loss, and a 3-2 setback on Jan. 3. Freshman Cole Hepler, who shares a few genes with head coach Dave Hepler, leads young Freeport with 12 goals, eight of them coming during his ongoing seven-game goal streak. Freeport’s best habit is good team defense, so Westmont’s Corey Schafer, who owns a Class A-best 32 goals and is second overall with 59 points, can’t take them lightly.
CLASS AA, SECTION 3
Elizabeth Forward (10-7-1) @ Bishop Canevin (15-4-0) (8:30) – Mount Lebanon Ice Arena
Although the Warriors won’t be able to improve upon their third-place finish in Section 3, the playoff-bound bunch can throw a monkey wrench into Canevin’s section title hopes. It’s Senior Night at the Mount Lebanon Ice Arena, and the Crusaders need to take care of business in this contest, their regular season finale, in order to hold off upstart Chartiers Valley for the crown. Canevin will undoubtedly count on its seniors to avenge its earlier 5-3 loss to EF Jan. 17, a game in which Frank Vance had a goal and an assist, and Zack Daley was nicked for all five goals on just 13 shots. Vance has scored five times and contributed 19 points in five games since the holiday break, and fellow senior Daley sits No. 6 among Class AA goalies with a 2.65 GAA and has looked sharp in his last three appearances. For Elizabeth Forward, its offense will run through Justin Delmaster, who had two goals and two helpers last time against Canevin and leads EF with 20 goals and 47 points.
CLASS AAA, SECTION 1
Bethel Park (13-3-2) @ Upper St. Clair (10-6-1) (9:00) – Ice Castle
Now that the Black Hawks have firmly established themselves as the team to beat in Class AAA, they have designs on a section title, as Canon-McMillan leads the race only by virtue of point percentage with two games left on Bethel’s slate. A key to the Hawks’ 11-game winning streak, now the longest active streak in the PIHL, has been their defense, which has allowed a Class AAA-low 36 goals, and the play of goaltender Austin McGinty, who leads all Class AAA netminders with a 1.58 GAA, .921 save percentage, and four shutouts. He’ll face a tall task when the Panthers, whose 96 goals rank among the tops in Class AAA, take the ice. USC has gone 4-1-1 over its last six outings, and would like to improve its own playoff positioning; if the tournament began today, it would face hated rival Mount Lebanon, a team that played them tough last week. C.J. Murray had an eight-game goal streak snapped that night, but he still sits third in Class AAA with 23 goals and 46 points. Check back with Mr. High School Sports at 937thefan.com later for extensive coverage of this game.
OPEN CLASS, SECTION 4
Greensburg-Salem (11-6-2) @ Ligonier Valley (10-8-1) (6:15) – Center Ice
If Altoona, the only non-playoff team in their conference, can find a way to upset Kiski Area, this game has section title implications for the Golden Lions, but more than likely it will be a rather immediate Chiefs Cup First Round preview. Salem is locked into the No. 4 spot in the Chiefs Cup standings as we speak, and the Rams sit at No. 5. Ligonier Valley is riding a five-game winning streak and has allowed just 50 goals, second fewest among Northeast Conference teams, but the bigger story is the torrid scoring pace set by Dace Ludwig, who has netted 15 goals in his last four games and leads the Rams with 35, not to mention 46 points. But that defense has to somehow contain Sean Beichner, who leads the Lions and the Open Class with 50 goals and 19 special teams tallies…and, to that last point, stay out of the box.
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!