By Matt Popchock
Boy, did Mr. High School Sports call that, or what? Okay, so that may seem a hypocritical thing to say, considering he picked all three number one seeds to advance. But remember: before that, he said no major upsets would take place until this round, and the Hampton Talbots and Upper St. Clair Panthers have made him look prophetic.
Arguably the biggest upset of the postseason took place Monday when Hampton knocked off No. 1 seed Kittanning for the second time this year in Class A action, then, in the words of Freddie Mercury, another “one” bit the dust, as the Panthers earned a mildly surprising shutout against top-seeded Fox Chapel in the Class AAA nightcap.
Now, on day two of the 2011 Penguins Cup Semifinals, the No. 2 seeds get their turn to skate in the House that Mario Built for the first time ever. All three of last year’s Penguins Cup champions–Mars, Latrobe, and Canon-McMillan–will resume their respective title defenses at Consol Energy Center today.
So without further ado, here is part two of Mr. High School Sports’ Semifinal forecast:
#2 Mars (21-1-0) vs. #4 Westmont Hilltop (17-4-1) – 5:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Robert Sigurdsson, Mars (SHG, 2 A in Quarterfinal win over South Fayette); Corey Schafer, Westmont Hilltop (2 G, A in Quarterfinal win over Quaker Valley)
MARS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Stepke steps up. He isn’t a PIHL All-Star, Penguins Cup champion, and Pennsylvania Cup champion for nothing. Starting goaltender Tyler Stepke has proven he is an elite player at his position, and the deeper you get into the postseason the more superior play between the pipes makes a difference.
2. Early offense. Mars won its Quarterfinal contest over South Fayette 5-0, but it didn’t necessarily have to. The Planets have proven they are comfortable winning low-scoring games with their outstanding and relatively mistake-free team defense, as their size creates problems for the average foe. Their goal will be to get a multiple-goal lead as soon as possible and start nursing it.
3. Power surge. The Hilltoppers were the least penalized team in Class A during the regular season, while the Planets owned the top power play in the classification. Mars will certainly try to play its own game and frustrate them into taking more penalties, so if and when that happens, the Planets need to do what they’ve been doing all year, and bury their opponent on special teams.
WESTMONT HILLTOP’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Schafer in space. Defensively Mars is a team that excels at gap control and taking away passing and shooting lanes from its opponent. Once again, the Hilltoppers will be playing on a bigger-than-usual ice surface, so they need to do a better job spreading out and using that ice to allow their top scorers to create more offense.
2. Weather the storm. At the PIHL Outdoor Charity Series Westmont was in the game until the third period, when the Planets’ offense simply overpowered them. Once you fall behind to this team by more than two goals, it’s nearly impossible to come back.
3. Net front presence. Mars’ only loss in PIHL play this regular season came to Kittanning, a team that was not shy about driving the net on Tyler Stepke. The Hilltoppers need to do a better job getting traffic in front of the All-Star goaltender, who, because of his talented defensemen, is not used to seeing a high volume of shots.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Expect a brisk-paced, hard-hitting game, as Westmont will be eager to prove the lopsided loss on the outdoor surface was not the Hilltoppers at their best, but the Planets, at this point, are very business-like and have more experience playing on the bigger stage. Although Hampton proved yesterday there are no guarantees in playoff hockey, it doesn’t take long for the Mars machinery to start humming. WINNER: MARS.
#2 Bishop Canevin (17-4-0) vs. #3 Latrobe (16-4-1) – 7:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Matt Walsh, Bishop Canevin (hat trick in Quarterfinal win over Elizabeth Forward); Zach LaDuke, Latrobe (4 G in Quarterfinal win over West Allegheny)
BISHOP CANEVIN’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Cycle and “recycle.” The Crusaders were never really in the last regular season meeting between these two teams because they didn’t move the puck efficiently enough, and they didn’t spend as much quality time in the offensive zone as they normally do. Their forwards need to get the puck behind the Latrobe defense and go to work.
2. Take away Singley. Obviously LaDuke will be the focal point of Canevin’s defense, especially after what he did to West A, but the Crusaders can’t afford to overlook Josh Singley. He was a big part of that Quarterfinal victory as well, he moves the puck well, and has great chemistry with LaDuke.
3. Special teams execution. Last time out these guys had opportunities to burn the Wildcats with their power play, which was one of the most productive units in the league during the regular season, but they simply didn’t finish plays. You don’t want to give a savvy defensive team like Latrobe even more confidence by not taking advantage of those opportunities.
LATROBE’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Help a brother out. Zach LaDuke strapped the Wildcats to his back in the Quarterfinals, but one All-Star forward alone won’t be enough to beat an opponent that brings a little more than West Allegheny at both ends of the ice and is not likely to get stage fright at Consol Energy Center. Latrobe might need a big goal from one of its underclassmen, like talented sophomore Josh Singley, who has scored a few.
2. Big save by Brudnok. There is every possibility that not much will give when two of the top five defensive teams in Class AA collide, which puts goaltending at a premium. Shane Brudnok has won multiple Penguins Cups and multiple state titles, and he largely won the last meeting between these two with his performance in net. You’d better believe he needs to be at the top of his game again tonight.
3. Own the neutral zone. We’ve already seen the Wildcats get in the Crusaders’ faces and generate turnovers that led to offense in transition, and we’ve also seen Latrobe get burned by turning the puck over. Playing on NHL ice helps Canevin, which probably felt suffocated against the ‘Cats last time, but if Latrobe can generate offense in transition, it’s in good shape.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: There’s a lot of character on this Canevin team, which should be able to keep this game relatively low-scoring, given the way it plays in front of goaltender Zack Daley. Having said that, there’s just as much character in the Latrobe locker room, and every time the Wildcats have reached the bigger stage they always seem undaunted, regardless of the opponent, or the flow of the game. WINNER: LATROBE.
#2 Canon-McMillan (16-4-1) vs. #3 Bethel Park (15-4-2) – 9:00 PM
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Dan Kucerovy, Bethel Park (2 PPG in Quarterfinal win over Pgh. Central Catholic); Brett Oldaker, Canon-McMillan (G in Quarterfinal win over Shaler)
CANON-McMILLAN’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. No early hole. The Big Macs’ sensational comeback against Shaler in last year’s Semifinals will not be forgotten, and their recent come-from-behind victory over the Titans is also impressive, but they really can’t afford to play catch-up with a team like Bethel Park. On its best day, Bethel can make a two-goal lead seem like an eight-goal lead.
2. Be opportunistic. Canon-McMillan has enough widespread offensive talent and enough heavy shooters on defense to capitalize on sloppy play by any team in its own zone. The Big Macs need to be aggressive and be ready to capitalize on mistakes, because this opponent doesn’t often make very many.
3. Puck possession. It’s uncanny how close these two teams are on paper, especially from a defensive standpoint, so offensive zone time will come at a premium. Canon-Mac needs to do what it does best, and generate good looks at the net from making good passes and playing as a team.
BETHEL PARK’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. The “real” McGinty. A big part of Bethel Park’s hot streak that began in December and lasted much of the regular season was the play in net of JV call-up Austin McGinty, but his last start against an opponent of this caliber was a rather ugly one. Bethel needs some big stops from the young man who’s been largely responsible for his team’s success.
2. Offense from defense. The identity of this team is its stifling defense, but those who play on the back end for the Black Hawks aren’t just stay-at-home bodies. They move the puck well, they can score off heavy shots from the point, or they can set up second-chance opportunities. Against a Canon-Mac squad that also likes to get its D-men involved, Bethel needs to fight fire with fire.
3. Keep your poise. This team plays a smart, disciplined game, and seems to be comfortable playing any style. It needs to maintain that discipline by staying out of the box, and not turning the puck over, as the Big Mac are a team that can really test the Hawks’ patience.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The Big Macs have a lot of size and mobility on their blue line, which can make a world of difference in an evenly-matched contest like this one. But the best team defense I’ve seen all year, one game not withstanding, has been Bethel Park’s, so as long as the Hawks can get a couple pucks behind Ryan Palonis and avoid making Jim McVay play musical chairs with his goalies, they can advance. WINNER: BETHEL PARK.
For continuing coverage of the Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports next week, and also be sure to check out the Pittsburgh Youth Hockey Network for scores, brackets, and more!