By Matt Popchock
It doesn’t undo the emotional damage done on CONSOL Energy Center ice seven months ago, but Canon-McMillan got the start it wanted to the new PIHL season.
The Big Macs (1-0-0) got some measure of revenge on Penguins Cup champion Upper St. Clair (0-1-0) with a 4-2 win at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon in the 2011-12 opener, a rematch of last season’s Class AAA Final.
Nick Lavorgna got the visitors on the board first by picking up a loose puck between the circles and beating Mike Ambrose with a wrist shot 3:30 into the first period.
Ambrose, who is in the minority of returnees from last year’s Pennsylvania Cup championship squad, was brilliant for most of the night, stopping 38 shots in defeat, including two flashy glove saves on breakaways by Anthony Tonkovich and J.D. Oddi to keep USC in the game.
The Panthers, in fact, led Class AAA last season with 119 goals during the regular season, but graduated players who accounted for an even 100. Still, Ambrose’s new teammates showed they had the same fight in them by tying the game 18 seconds later. They generated a rush off the ensuing faceoff, and Michael McCombs rammed a rebound into an open net.
Nevertheless, Canon-Mac kept its relentless forecheck going, and that, coupled with poor puck management by USC, helped the Big Macs retake the lead at the 8:17 mark of period one. A turnover in the high slot found the stick of defenseman Nick Harrison, who blasted his first goal of the new season over the shoulder of Ambrose.
“We always want to have a hard forecheck. That sets up offensive opportunities for us, when we put pressure on their defense…and that’s what we’ve been stressing to the kids these last couple weeks,” assistant coach Jeff Severyn said.
Ironically, Canon-McMillan seemed to seize control with arguably its best player in the box.
Alex Baskakov, regarded as one of the premier offensive defensemen in the league, had to sit for interference late in the second period, but Blair Oldaker forced a turnover near his own blue line, barely beat his defender, and, in the same motion, beat Ambrose on a short-handed breakaway with 3:35 to go till the ice cut.
“I had blocked a shot, and I got a nice pass up through the middle,” Oldaker said. “I was going down, and luckily got enough of a shot on net.”
But the Panthers didn’t lose control just yet. With 24 seconds to go in the period, David Penkrot fired a puck from the left point that found the net through a crowd to cut the deficit to 3-2.
As is usually the case, that late goal energized the Panthers, who later killed off a two-man advantage and otherwise skated on more even terms with Canon-McMillan in the third. New starting goalie Ryan Christian, spurned on by his defense, quietly shut the door, however, finishing the night with 17 saves, and Baskakov fed fellow European Artem Prus in the closing seconds for an easy empty-netter.
“It was definitely a little nerve-wracking,” Christian said of the final minutes. “First game of the year, you want to get that win, so I’m thinking, just keep it out of the crease. I’m lucky enough to have one of the best defenses in the league in front of me.”
Canon-McMillan visits McDowell in non-section play on Halloween night, while Upper St. Clair next travels to Center Ice in Delmont to take on Penn-Trafford in a non-section game Thursday.
OTHER PIHL RESULTS (MONDAY): Troy McAteer and Jordan Mardirossian each scored twice for Gateway in a 5-3 win over Montour (Class AA, non-section)…Conlan Sodrosky also netted a pair, including the game-winner, and added one assist to help Penn-Trafford upend Shaler 5-2 (Class AAA, non-section), despite two goals from Jacob Hetz…Mason Ervin’s hat trick powered West Allegheny past North Hills 9-0 in the Indians’ first varsity game since 2010 (Class AA, Section 1)…Brandon Donnelly’s two goals and four assists helped Kiski Area shut out Franklin Regional 9-0 in its first game since leaving the Open Class (Class AA, Section 3).
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