By Matt Popchock
Break out the brooms, baby. In case you hadn’t noticed, it was a pretty good weekend for teams that played in the Consol Energy Center during the month of March. Mr. High School Sports made the long trip to Ice Line Quad Rinks in West Chester, Pa. and got to see a clean sweep by the west in the Pennsylvania Cup Finals for the first time in five seasons.
Your 2010-11 Penguins Cup champions–the Mars Planets (Class A), the Bishop Canevin Crusaders (Class AA), and the Upper St. Clair Panthers (Class AAA)–all went home with state titles Saturday afternoon. After Mars successfully defended its crown from last year, Canevin worked hard to erase a 22-year PA Cup drought, and USC played dragon-slayer yet again in a dramatic victory for its first state championship since 1987.
But before Mr. High School Sports calls it quits on another Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League season, which, as usual, seemed to end all too soon, he has a few last words.
*The story of Mars assistant coach Mike Manganello is an interesting one to say the least. He was on head coach Steven Meyers’ staff until Meyers got married and temporarily left the Planets’ varsity squad, leaving Manganello in charge. Manganello’s record as interim coach is 2-0, winning the Penguins Cup Final, and then the Pennsylvania Cup Final against the Flyers Cup champion Springfield Cougars on Saturday. Heck, with a resume like that, I’d consider retiring. In that case, no one could dispute he went out on top.
*If you were there Saturday afternoon, I’m sure you eventually noticed the hats thrown to the ice after Nick Blaney completed his hat trick for Mars looked exactly the same. And yes, that was by design. Apparently, the Mars boosters brought with them a box of hats just in case what happened to the junior forward did indeed happen. No wonder they’ve been the most consistent Class A program in the state the last couple years, even the fans are well prepared.
*Blaney’s second goal was a thing of beauty, as was junior forward Elliot Tisdale’s. Mike Rice, the Springfield goaltender (no relation), really played well, in my opinion, despite what the 5-2 final score might suggest. But if one weakness was exposed, it was his inability to protect the short side. With the game tied 1-1 Tisdale, the assistant captain and regular season scoring champ, barreled in on goal with a defender draped on him and somehow flung a puck at the last second between Rice’s right forearm and the post. It was what we in the business call a “goal-scorer’s goal,” and a pretty one at that. From that point forward the Planets never looked back. Blaney’s second tally came off a play in which he did dogged work to kill the end of a penalty, then turned around in the near circle and whipped a shot, same spot, that somehow got through. For all the glory Tisdale deservedly gets, Blaney’s heroics in the playoffs won’t be forgotten.
*I’m not going to pull this crap we always see on the Four-Letter Network where they predict in detail next year’s winners and top teams when the present season is barely over. But let’s just leave it at this: I don’t think the Planets are going away anytime soon. Tisdale and Blaney will both be seniors. Serviceable forward Robert Foley and top penalty killer Joe Bender are slated to return, and Austin Heakins might be one of the most exciting juniors to watch in Class A. The big question mark will be between the pipes, as Tyler Stepke and backup Walker Enstad will both graduate, but at the very least, Mars should be very competitive again next season.
*Without question, the most disturbing moment of the Class A Pennsylvania Cup Final, no matter whose side you were on, was when Springfield senior captain Dave Allen took a pounding against the corner boards in Mars territory and didn’t get up. Allen, in fact, stumbled, almost as though losing consciousness, when he tried to get up, and had to be helped off the ice by a trainer. Amazingly, Allen was out there for his next shift; I was all but fully convinced the poor young man was concussed when I saw him lose his balance. I’m not pointing fingers, and I’m not trying to play armchair doctor, but it didn’t take one to see something wasn’t right, and seeing Allen return to action really made me wonder if team officials should have erred on the side of caution, even if the player was coherent. In the bigger picture, as youth hockey leagues across the U.S. and Canada aim to improve head safety, with all we are finding out about concussions these days, I hope that baseline testing becomes more commonplace at high school programs everywhere, and I hope they are not nearly as stubborn and near-sighted on the issue as the National Hockey League has been.
*I know I’m not supposed to have a horse in any of these races, so if you belong to one of the PIHL Class AA hockey associations that opposed Bishop Canevin during the 2010-11 season, I apologize. But I like seeing Kevin Zielmanski’s teams succeed. He’s proven himself a very competent and very down-to-earth head coach of the Crusaders’ varsity squad. In my experience covering scholastic hockey in western Pennsylvania, he’s been one of the most approachable and accessible team leaders I’ve ever met. No coach-speak whatsoever during interviews, very thoughtful and thorough. He was definitely emotional after the awards presentation, and he had every right to be. What his team did to three of the best in PA in its last three games was really impressive.
*For Council Rock South, the Class AA Flyers Cup champion, this was, in some ways, a carbon copy of the Golden Hawks’ loss to Latrobe at states two seasons ago. The Hawks were ahead in that game, but some things in the third period didn’t go their way, and the Wildcats were able to avoid the upset and defend their PA Cup title at the time. Council Rock South got on the board first this time around on a goal by defenseman and assistant captain Zack Goodman I’m sure Canevin goaltender Zack Daley probably wanted back. In the third period, trailing 2-1, the Hawks had endless chances to get the equalizer, and if the hockey gods were on their side, they might have. But the longer the Canevin defense was able to survive, and the more key saves Daley made, the more it became evident, as the third period wore on, that this was simply Bishop Canevin’s year.
*I know for a fact Coach Zielmanski talks to his kids a lot about net-front presence, a la Dan Bylsma. Sure enough, that’s how the Crusaders turned their game around. Their first goal, which came on a power play via Nicholas Hart and tied the game 1-1, resulted from what looked like a broken play. Canevin couldn’t connect on the initial one-timer, but Hart was trailing the play, his teammates saw it, and he scored off the rebound, right in front of goaltender Steve Jastrow. Matt Walsh’s game-winning goal came off a turnover that resulted in a clean breakaway. Walsh really skated in tight and waited to make a move before shooting a puck that just barely squeezed by Jastrow. Best hands in the PIHL? Don’t know, but Walsh is up there.
*Walsh still has one more year left, which is good for the Crusaders, because they’re going to have some big skates to fill next season. Daley is graduating (wonder if Montour transfer Julian DiFillippo wants to come back now?), as are top defenseman Kendall King and assistant captain Michael Mansmann. Another tough loss will be that of team captain and second-leading scorer Frank Vance, but as a senior, you want to go out happy, and Vance certainly did that. He couldn’t stop gushing during and after the awards ceremony, and he is definitely one who has led by example. Very much a student of the game and one of the most pleasant post-game interviews I conducted all weekend. Sometimes, when I watched him and Walsh work together on that top unit, it was as though Sid and Geno played on a high school team together.
*One reason for further optimism at Bishop Canevin is Randy Unger. He’s a freshman who certainly didn’t play like one. My heart went out to him, as he was unable to play in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Cup Final because he was rehabilitating a shoulder injury sustained in a hit by Peters Township’s Mike Amelio during the Penguins Cup Finals. He’ll always be remembered for his OT goal that knocked off three-time state champ Latrobe in the semis, and he’ll have to play an even bigger role in the Crusaders’ offense next season. I firmly believe Unger will rise to that challenge. His indomitable two-way play personified his team’s effort in the 2011 playoffs.
*I learned never to count out the Upper St. Clair Panthers, and never to count out any team coached by Larry Marks. Marks is another of the “good guys” who, with all diplomacy and professionalism intended, I enjoy seeing do well, and I really think his years of experience within the PIHL paid off against a seasoned LaSalle squad that skated confidently all day Saturday. Having said that, seeing USC pull off a slight but significant upset, from my point of view, was a pleasant surprise. I was optimistic Mars would play the business-like game it ultimately did, and though I was on the fence about Canevin, I was still guardedly optimistic. But in a way, I felt bad for Marks’ kids coming in, because I thought they had the toughest matchup of the three. The Explorers could score, and like USC, they shored up their defense in these playoffs. The Panthers’ sudden-death victory epitomizes the character of that team, which grew up in a hurry after flying under the radar during the regular season.
*I don’t know what the future holds for All-Star seniors C.J. Murray, the team captain, and Justin Selep, his frequent linemate, but I sincerely hope those two get college looks. They have the physical tools to be respectable players somewhere, even if it isn’t some big-shot Division I school, especially Selep. It’s funny how Ryan Malone is the name people most regularly associate with Upper St. Clair hockey (for obvious reasons), because Selep. In the spirit of Malone, he showed his prowess as a power forward with big goals early in the playoffs, and big hits throughout. Murray can put a lot of power on his wrist shot, he plays the game hard without playing it dirty, and he saved his best hockey for last. It isn’t always how many goals your captain scores, it’s when he scores them. Murray’s hat trick, punctuated in OT, was a fitting way to end an impressive PIHL career.
*As long as I’m naming ex-Penguins, I might as well throw out Mark Recchi. USC winger Stephen Gielarowski, who scored the third goal for the Panthers, reminds me of Recchi. He isn’t the biggest guy on the ice, but throughout the season and on Saturday, he more than made up for it with his heart. Oh, by the way, the kid shoots the puck a better than you might think upon first glance. In fact, Stephen told me after the win that, like Recchi, he’s been told all his life he’s “too little” to play the game. He really takes that to heart, and uses it as motivation. Frankly, I think his determination catches opposing players off-guard.
*To me the unsung hero of the Class AAA game, to say nothing of Mike Ambrose’s clutch performance in net yet again, were USC’s penalty killers. My one knock against this team is that it couldn’t stay out of the box. Defenseman Parker Phillips took four minor penalties on Saturday, for example. If there were one area where LaSalle really could have hurt the Panthers with his notoriously deadly offense, special teams was it. But once again, both PK units for Upper St. Clair did yeoman’s work to atone for the team’s mistakes. And hey, let’s give Ambrose one more nod because, as the adage goes, your best penalty killer has to be your goalie.
*Ambrose is back, Penguins Cup Playoff heroes Luke Stork and Mike Sweeney are both entering their junior seasons, though Gielarowski might become a major focal point of the Panthers’ offense himself entering his senior season. That’s where the Panthers will be hit the hardest by graduation: up front. It’ll probably take these guys time to maintain their strong team chemistry moving forward, but who’s to say they can’t get it together at the right time next year, just as they did this winter? If there’s one thing USC improved upon in March, it’s unselfish play and how to finish plays, regardless of who is on the ice. As long as Marks is around, I’m sure he’ll not let those lessons be forgotten.
*On a side note, I was relieved to hear PIHL commissioner Ed Sam mention the league looking into playing the state championships at Penn State’s “new” rink in a few years–the one that will house PSU’s new Division I men’s program. As nice as it was having the PA Cup come to the Civic Arena last year, and as much as I enjoyed my time in West Chester, these games should be played as close to central Pennsylvania as possible, with transportation and gasoline costs being what they are. Hockey programs do their fund-raising “the hard way,” and I’m sure it was no small financial feat to get Mars, Bishop Canevin, and Upper St. Clair to come all the way to Flyers Cup country. State championship participants in hockey should have no more home-ice (home-field) advantage than state championship participants for the other mainstream sports if it can possibly be helped.
*The PIHL served two notices over the weekend. Number one, the character and the maturity of its teams, being able to come to the Philadelphia suburbs and win three times in what were essentially home games for their opponents. Number two, it was a reminder of the positive direction high school hockey has taken in western Pennsylvania in my lifetime. Scholastic sports enthusiasts in the area need to take note.
-“Mr. High School Sports”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)