By Matt Popchock
Something has to give when two of the top teams in PIHL Class A face off at the Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon for an 8:55 puck drop Thursday night.
The Planets have captured the last two Pennsylvania Cup titles, not to mention the last three Penguins Cup Championships, and Serra has dropped their last three meetings with Mars, including the 2010 Penguins Cup Final. Its last victory over the champs was a 5-3 decision in Rostraver Jan. 4 of that year.
Nevertheless, these Eagles, despite their youth and relatively low roster volume, continue to fly high. They opened their 2011-12 PIHL season Oct. 27 with an impressive 9-2 rout of section rival and Class A newcomer Thomas Jefferson at BladeRunners in Bethel Park, then edged Hampton 3-2 in overtime in a thrilling non-section contest at Ice Connection on Halloween to take an early lead in Section 1.
On Thursday they’ll be playing for the first time this season in a building they’ve owned as of late. Serra has gone 34-5-1 in its last 40 home games dating back to the start of the 2007 calendar year.
Senior forward Garner Kraemer exploded in the opener with a hat trick, including power play and shorthanded goals, and he shares the team lead in points with six. Last season he registered 14 goals and finished second on the varsity squad with 37 points. He scored six special teams goals during the 2010-11 regular campaign and now carries a nine-game point streak dating back to last season.
Kraemer is sharing the points lead with defenseman Robert Kendi, who has provided steady play while chipping in five assists, and providing the game-winning goal against the Talbots last week with 54 seconds left in OT. Junior Tyler Speis also got off to a hot start with four goals against T.J., including the game-winner, and he leads the Eagles with five, three of which have come on special teams. Speis led the team as a sophomore in 2010-11 with 25 goals and 42 points, earning a point in 17 straight.
Defensively, Serra Catholic has also been stabilized by the unselfish play of Travis Marzina, who has stepped into the role of starting goalie after spending the bulk of his high school career as a skater. Marzina made 23 saves against Hampton and takes a 1.91 GAA and .892 save percentage into Thursday’s contest.
The changing of the guard between the pipes has been a storyline for the state champions as well. Alex Stepke, younger brother of former All-Star netminder Tyler Stepke, struggled in his 2011-12 debut, managing just 13 saves as the Planets outlasted Thomas Jefferson 9-5 in Rostraver Nov. 1. Two nights later, newcomer Christian Knapp fared a little better, turning aside 21 shots in a 4-3 win over Section 2 counterpart Quaker Valley at Airport Ice Arena–a possible Penguins Cup Final preview. Knapp will reportedly start Thursday.
For Mars, a team that allowed a league-low 23 goals and shut out four of its last five regular season opponents last year, that isn’t the kind of dependability the team has gotten used to at that position. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the Planets’ offense, which, once again, appears to be in its own galaxy.
They led Class A with 185 goals during the 2010-11 regular season, and junior forward Austin Heakins has picked up right where his team’s last title run left off. Through two games Heakins leads the classification with eight goals and ten points, including three power play tallies and the game-winner against the Quakers. Last season he was one of the PIHL’s best puck-movers, finishing second in Class A behind former teammate Elliot Tisdale with 33 assists, and seeing him expand his game just makes him scarier.
Special teams ace Joe Bender is another key returnee for Mars, and he’s already contributed one of its Class A-best five power play goals to go with five assists in his first two outings. But offensively, the real x-factor for the Planets could be the play of senior Nick Blaney.
He wore the cape in West Chester back in March, scoring a hat trick against Springfield to lead his team to Pennsylvania Cup gold, and recently, his four goals and seven points powered the Planets to a semifinal berth in the St. Margaret’s Fall Face-Off, an annual exhibition tournament featuring top area teams from all three “pure” classifications that precedes every PIHL season. Blaney has opened the new PIHL season with a power play goal and three helpers.
Serra Catholic head coach Brian Boehm told us he thinks his team can exploit that offense because it is in a position, due to roster turnover, where it has to carry the Planets more than usual to compensate for its defense. Still, Mars is proving that, even after graduating a lot of talent, it can win with an aggressive style of play, and head coach Steven Meyers says he remains confident that, as long as his team plays their system, they can get the job done while their young blue-liners continue to grow.
Be sure to check back with the “Mr. High School Sports” blog later this week for a complete recap of this game, along with video highlights, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
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