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“Mr. High School Sports” – PIHL Preview

Rostraver Ice Garden

A look inside the Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon, site of the Semifinal and Final rounds of this year’s Chiefs Cup and Nailers Cup tournaments, and home of the 2011 Open Cup. (Photo credit: PIHL)

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By Matt Popchock

One thing rings true about the PIHL’s Open Class playoffs year after year: they always sneak up on Mr. High School Sports.  After a busy weekend of watching basketball, 93.7 The Fan’s high school sports reporter is catching up with those who have already dropped the puck on postseason hockey.

A closer look at the road to the Open Cup is coming later this week, but in the meantime, we’ll take a quick look back at the weekend’s action in the Chiefs Cup Playoffs and Nailers Cup Playoffs while looking ahead to big games in the three “pure” classifications Monday night, including a significant battle for playoff positioning in Class AA.  So without further ado, here’s what happened–and here’s what’s coming–at a rink near you:

MONDAY:

NAILERS CUP SEMIFINALS

#2 Harbor Creek (18-3-0) vs. #3 Quigley (15-5-1) (7:05) – Rostraver Ice Garden

The Quarterfinal round on this side of the Open Class bracket was all chalk, starting with the upstart Huskies routing No. 7 seed Wheeling Park, and continuing with the Spartans continuing their stellar play down the stretch with a decisive victory over No. 6 seed Morgantown.  When you defend against the Section 2 champs, you almost literally have to keep your head on a swivel, as Andrew Chase leads Harbor Creek with 18 goals and 35 points, and leads a pack that plays well with one another and scores from everywhere.  Quigley’s offense goes through a top line led by Will Martin, who racked up 30 goals and 52 points in the regular season, though Huskies netminder Zack Cook, who ranks fourth among starters in GAA, might be an x-factor.

#1 Wheeling C.C. (21-0-0) vs. #4 John Marshall (14-5-2) (9:10) – Rostraver Ice Garden

The only team in the PIHL to finish the regular season with a perfect record got almost all it could handle from No. 8 seed Carrick, and the Monarchs also had to really tough out a Quarterfinal win over No. 5 seed Blackhawk to get here.  Paul Ratcliffe led the Maroon Knights during the regular season with 28 goals and 62 points, good for a spot in the Open Class top five, and continued his torrid scoring pace in the playoffs.  Forward Isaac Fitzpatrick has played a big role in the rise of John Marshall’s young program, and he is coming off another great regular season in which he scored 23 goals and led the team with 47 points.

CLASS A, NON-SECTION

Mars (19-1-0) @ Knoch (6-14-0) (9:00) – Valley Sports Complex

At this point the Planets have little to play for after winning the Section 2 crown…except, of course, pride, and the No. 1 seed in Class A.  Mars needs to spoil the fun on Senior Night for the Knights in New Kensington in order to keep the pressure on Section 4 champ Kittanning, which is currently tied with Mars for the top spot.  The records suggest an easy trip for Mars, but the two-time Penguins Cup champs bowed to Knoch 4-3 in their last meeting Jan. 22, 2010.  The Knights’ leadership has undergone changes since then, as sophomore Mike Rykaczewski now leads them with 25 goals and 41 points, but Mars has shut out seven of its last ten opponents.  Five of those belong to Tyler Stepke, who ranks first among Class A starters with a 1.52 GAA.

CLASS AA, NON-SECTION

Latrobe (15-3-1) @ Chartiers Valley (14-5-0) (8:30) – Mount Lebanon Ice Arena

If there’s anyone who predicted in September or October that Char’ Valley would be where it is as the team prepares for Senior Night, Mr. High School Sports would like to consult with him or her about this weekend’s Powerball numbers.  The surprisingly improved Colts have locked up the No. 4 spot and last available first-round bye, but for the first time in a while the dominance of three-time state champ Latrobe is being challenged.  The Wildcats need a win on the road in order to even tie Peters Township for the No. 1 Penguins Cup Playoff seed (Peters has one game in hand); furthermore, Char’ Valley already edged Latrobe back in December.  Justin Sabilla leads the Colts and sits second in Class AA with 34 goals and 60 points…right behind January Player of the Month Zach LaDuke, who is pacing the Wildcats and the classification with 41 goals and 73 points.  It’s a lot of pressure on Latrobe’s Shane Brudnok and Chartiers Valley’s Noah Stevenson, who are each among the top five in GAA.  Check back with Mr. High School Sports at 937thefan.com later for extensive coverage of this game.

TUESDAY:

CHIEFS CUP SEMIFINALS

#1 Ford City (18-1-2) vs. #7 Ringgold (7-13-1) (7:05) – Rostraver Ice Garden

Maybe it’s time to officially throw records out the window, now that the defending Open Cup champs have overcome a disappointing regular season by stunning Hollidaysburg for the right to face the Section 3 winners.  The Rams boast Open Class scoring champion Kevin Claybaugh, who led all with 46 goals and 74 points, but at this point an added premium is placed on team defense, and the Sabers, who easily dismissed No. 8 seed Connellsville, have the most well-rounded puck-moving D-man in the Open Class in Kevin Valasek, who led Ford City with 40 goals and 70 points.

#3 Kiski Area (14-6-1) vs. #4 Greensburg-Salem (12-7-2) (9:10) – Rostraver Ice Garden

The Golden Lions were working some overtime this weekend–double overtime, to be precise–to slip past the No. 5 seed, red-hot Ligonier Valley, while the Section 4 champions were also in action Saturday, outlasting No. 6 seed Derry to move on.  Open Class goal-scoring leader Sean Beichner, who netted 50 during the regular campaign and had 67 points for Salem, continues to make big plays, whereas the Cavaliers rely on a more balanced attack that grinds teams down.  Brandon Donnelly’s team-high 14 goals and 29 points make him one of nine Kiski players with ten regular season points.

THURSDAY:

CLASS AAA, SECTION 1

Canon-McMillan (14-3-1) @ Bethel Park (13-4-2) (8:20) – BladeRunners Ice Complex, Bethel Park

The hottest team in the league got knocked down a couple pegs in stunning fashion last Friday, so now the Black Hawks need to find their legs again and bounce back in their regular season finale to have a shot at denying Canon-Mac the section title, as the Penguins Cup champs have a game in hand.  Both teams have wrapped up first-round byes, but Bethel still has a shot to overtake the Big Macs for the No. 2 Penguins Cup Playoff seed as well, if it can beat them for a second time.  Better make your shots count when two of the top defensive teams in Class AAA hook up, and Brett Oldaker, Canon-Mac’s top gun, has done so, registering 18 goals and 49 points (3rd in AAA), including multiple points in ten straight.  Both teams have good puck-moving D, such as the Hawks’ Mike Shipley, a former PIHL Player of the Month, and Bethel’s scoring leader, Dan Kucerovy, continues to contribute with 23 goals and 40 points, 17 of which have come in his last five games.

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!