By Matt Popchock
You’ve seen the tagline in commercials a million times: “Destiny has a new home.” For years the destinies of Penguins Cup champions were fulfilled at the Civic Arena, and starting Monday night, they’ll be fulfilled on the other side of Fifth Avenue, at the Consol Energy Center. Six PIHL teams across three different classifications will become the first high school squads to skate in Pittsburgh’s new Igloo, each of them with a shot at advancing to the Penguins Cup Finals.
On the first day of Penguins Cup Semifinal competition, the three top seeds will each skate. Fox Chapel (Class AAA) squeaked into the next round past a hard-working underdog, Peters Township (Class AA) rolled over a former dynasty, and Kittanning (Class A) took down a school that’s brand spanking new–sort of–for the privilege of playing on NHL ice.
Here’s a glance at each of Monday’s games, along with Mr. High School Sports’ Semifinal forecast:
#1 Kittanning (21-1-0) vs. #6 Hampton (16-6-0) – 5:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Troy Schall, Kittanning (4 G, A in Quarterfinal win over Central Valley); Zachary Homitz, Hampton (2 G, A in Quarterfinal win over Serra Catholic)
KITTANNING’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Finish. Last time these two teams met, Kittanning had chances early on to change the complexion of the game, but had nothing to show for its efforts until the second period. The best way to deal with an underdog is to execute well and put it on the ropes early.
2. Schall in space. Troy Schall is one of the most confident-looking skaters in the entire league, and the way he blows by defensemen is quite impressive sometimes. The Wildcats need to continue moving the puck well to give him good looks at the net, and also to give him the opportunity to create for his teammates, who together schooled Hampton in the season finale.
3. Stay out of the box. Late in the previous meeting Kittanning got into penalty trouble, having to play the final minutes without one of its top wingers and perhaps its top-puck moving defenseman…and the Talbots made them pay for not reigning in their own behavior. You don’t want to tempt fate against a power play that managed 20 regular season goals and an important pair versus Serra.
HAMPTON’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Supporting Wilson. Sam Wilson almost single-handedly landed that January upset of the ‘Cats, and he’s coming off a stellar performance against the Eagles, but the third-ranked goalie in Class A in terms of GAA and save percentage will need help, as Kittanning did a good job generating second-chance offense against Central Valley.
2. More balance. Three of Hampton’s top forwards scored a pair of goals to key the upset of Serra Catholic. Though Luke Leya did a fine job playing hero back in January, life will be much harder against a motivated Wildcat squad that plays some of the best defense in the classification and recently made its greatest goal-scorer (Tyler Kocis) look disinterested…if others don’t contribute.
3. Hold that line. Against players like Schall, Jordan Ford, and Tyler Crissman, who have legit offensive skill and like to use the ice, defensively the Talbots can’t be shy about gap control, nor about taking away the middle of the offensive zone. If this is to be a real contest, Hampton’s team defense has to skate with the Wildcats’ offense and bump those very capable forwards off the puck.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: When Hampton upset Kittanning shortly after the holiday break, the Talbots really relied on Wilson to help steal a game that the Wildcats dominated for significant stretches, and they also relied on a lot of power play opportunities. Kittanning’s commitment to team defense and responsibility now seems more steadfast, and the ‘Cats haven’t looked back since that loss. WINNER: KITTANNING.
CLASS AA SEMIFINALS:
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Taylor Cox, Peters Township (hat trick in Quarterfinal win over Pine-Richland); Justin Sabilla, Chartiers Valley (3 G, 2 A in Quarterfinal win over Montour)
PETERS TOWNSHIP’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Stability in net. One of the hallmarks of this team is it has three goaltenders who have been equally reliable throughout the season. Whichever one gets the nod tonight needs to be on his game, because Chartiers Valley brings one of the most improved attacks in the league.
2. 45-minute game. The Colts showed their resiliency more than ever in erasing a three-goal deficit in the third period to force overtime and eventually knock off No. 5 seed Montour. Peters Township needs to finish strong and stick to good habits late in the game the way they did when they got a big lead against Pine-Richland.
3. Puck management. You don’t get to the Penguins Cup Semifinals without team chemistry, or without knowing how to cycle the puck. But you also don’t get there by turning the puck over, and the Indians don’t want to do that against the Colts, who can make teams pay for mistakes with their transition offense.
CHARTIERS VALLEY’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Be patient. The Colts are about to face one of the toughest teams in the PIHL to score against. If they skate hard, beat the Indians to loose pucks, and shoot aggressively, their opportunities will come. But you can’t panic if you fall behind against Peters Township.
2. Hats on hats. As previously mentioned, the scary thing about Peters Township is the Indians are so efficient up front you never know who will be the hero on a nightly basis. Cox is playing well, but Trevor Reckentwald also had a huge game against Pine-Richland. The Colts need to play sound man-on-man defense, get physical, and knock those big forwards off the puck.
3. Special teams. The speed and the skill of Sabilla and guys like Bob Tracy, his regular linemate, can frustrate you into taking penalties. Char’ Valley has one of the top power plays and had more shorthanded goals that any team in Class AA, so if it can get a goal or two in odd-man situations, that could be the difference between going home and going on to the Penguins Cup Final.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Offensively Char’ Valley has the horses to keep up with Peters Township, whose offense was surprisingly successful itself this year (and has once already). Under-rated goaltender Noah Stevenson is always up for a mini-miracle or two, but you need to play a nearly mistake-free game to beat the Indians, and the coaching of Rick Tingle, a man who has won multiple Penguins Cups, has demonstrated he can get Peters to play that way, especially on the back end. WINNER: PETERS TOWNSHIP.
CLASS AAA SEMIFINALS:
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Christian Wirginis, Fox Chapel (2 G in Quarterfinal win over Norwin); C.J. Murray, Upper St. Clair (2 A in Quarterfinal win over North Allegheny)
FOX CHAPEL’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Be aggressive. Goals didn’t come as freely as the Foxes wanted against Norwin, but now the face a Panther squad whose defenders don’t always move the puck a great deal. The Foxes have enough talented forwards that, if they exploit that by making quick transitions to offense, and if they control attacking zone time, they usually control the game.
2. Hit…or be hit. Playing in an environment and on a stage that is so foreign to a team can be pretty nerve-wracking, especially considering that for its opponent, Upper St. Clair, skating in the home of the Penguins is old hat. Hockey players often say the best way to get physically and mentally into a game is to either take a hit, or throw your body around early. Fox Chapel isn’t afraid to do either.
3. First goal. For high school kids, the emotional barometer of the playoffs reaches its peak at a time like this, and on this stage momentum can be such a valuable thing. If USC gets on the board first, Fox Chapel might start gripping the sticks a little tight, but if the Foxes can draw first blood, they are a team that can and will play its own game much more confidently and effectively.
UPPER ST. CLAIR’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. More from Murray. He was held in check by NA’s defense for much of the Quarterfinals, so he’ll be as eager as anyone to get on the board at Consol Energy Center and make a big impact for the Panthers. USC needs to make every effort to find him in open ice, but good back-checking from Murray against these Fox Chapel forwards wouldn’t hurt either.
2. Secondary scoring. Who else besides the aforementioned All-Star will take charge for Upper St. Clair? Will it be fellow All-Star Justin Selep, who scored a pair against the Tigers last week, and whose status due to travel team commitments is not known as of press time, or will it be Stephen Gielarowski, a smaller but equally energetic forward with a great wrist shot? Either way, Fox Chapel will mark Murray, so he needs help.
3. Loose pucks. The top-scoring in offense in Class AAA during the regular campaign usually finds ways to score, and they’ll have to go to the well again now that they face the least scored-upon team in the classification. One way is to get to loose pucks and generate offense down low, as the Foxes, in their previous outing against Norwin, sometimes made the mistake of leaving the middle of the ice relatively open.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The size and the firepower of the Panthers’ offense is impressive, and what’s equally impressive is the way the Foxes have demonstrated poise and played on even or greater terms with teams of this ilk throughout the season. As long as Tyler Fannie continues making big saves, and as long as the Foxes contain Murray the way they did in the previous meeting, the feel-good story will continue. WINNER: FOX CHAPEL.
For continuing coverage of the Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports later this week, and be sure to also check out the Pittsburgh Youth Hockey Network for scores, brackets, and more!