By Matt Popchock
If there were one team in Class A that could bring the Planets back to Earth, it was Serra Catholic.
The Eagles had protected their house better than most in the PIHL, losing only five times in Rostraver Ice Garden in league competition since January 2007.
Make that six.
The three-time Penguins Cup champions and two-time Pennsylvania Cup titlists may have endured significant roster turnover, but senior forward Robert Foley registered a hat trick, and Mars (3-0-0) proved it’s still–well, Mars–in a 5-1 victory over Serra (2-1-0) in non-section action Thursday.
The Eagles entered the game as one of only two teams in the classification to have beaten Mars three times in PIHL play during the past four years (Quaker Valley is the other). Nevertheless, Mars has now won the last four meetings since bowing to Serra in Rostraver Jan. 4, 2010, including the 2010 Penguins Cup Final.
Recently married head coach Steven Meyers presided over that championship game, though, due to a scheduling conflict, he listened to last season’s Penguins Cup title game and subsequent state final during his honeymoon in Hawaii.
The Mon Valley in November may not beat The Islands in March, but beating a quality Class A opponent warms his heart nevertheless.
“That’s a good team over there,” Meyers said. “We knew they were young on the back end, and we knew their goalie hadn’t played [that position] a lot, so we focused on getting a lot of shots on net, and playing responsible defensively.”
Despite already being shorthanded on defense themselves, and furthermore, missing blue-liner Ian Houk-Graves, the Planets put forth their best defensive effort of the young season, led by new starting goaltender Christian Knapp, who made 17 saves to pick up his second straight win.
“We’ve got two young goalies we’re trying to develop, and we’re trying not to rush either of them along. But they’re both coming along real well,” Meyers said.
“I’ve really tried to work on my lateral movement, and watching my angles,” Knapp said. “I’ve learned if you’re not careful with those, it leaves you in a tough position to make saves.”
Serra Catholic head coach Brian Boehm had wondered if Mars would be able to play the same aggressive, puck possession game in years past and still get away with it after all its roster turnover. For at least one night, the Planets proved him wrong by scoring key goals in transition and dictating the offensive tempo much of the night.
“We knew if we just played our system, we’d be all right,” Meyers remarked. “If we kept them in their own zone, they couldn’t beat us.”
The Planets erased a scoreless tie with that transition game midway through the first period. State championship hero Nick Blaney skated with Joe Bender on a two-on-one, Blaney fed Bender from the left wing, and the new Mars captain beat Travis Marzina down low with a wrist shot at the 9:15 mark.
Austin Heakins, who had led Class A with ten points (8 G + 2 A) in just two games, picked up the secondary assist, one of three helpers on the night for Mars’ top scorer.
Serra’s assistant captain, senior forward Garner Kraemer, answered right back just over three minutes later with a snap shot from the left side that bounced off Knapp and over the line for his fourth goal and team-leading seventh point of the young season.
But Mars wasted little time taking over this marquee Class A showdown in the second period. Once again, the Planets quickly turned defense into offense, as Russell Miller fed Foley for his first of the season just 1:50 into the middle frame. Less than two minutes later, they got their trademark forecheck going, and Blaney’s one-timer from along the goal line got past Marzina for a 3-1 Mars lead.
The Eagles settled down and kept it that way until the ice cut, though they were unable to cash in on multiple power play chances, including a game misconduct to Bender for a retaliatory cross-check late in the period.
Foley delivered the back-breaker 2:09 into the third with a sizzling wrist shot from the right circle, and he rounded out the scoring, along with his aforementioned hat trick, by feathering a puck barely past Marzina on a backdoor play set up by Blaney with exactly seven minutes left in regulation.
“I saw Heakins heading up the ice, and [Blaney] made a nice play to put it off the goalie, so I just finished,” Foley said.
Meanwhile, there was no fooling Marzina’s counterpart, as Knapp continued his fundamentally strong game to complete an impressive win by the visitors.
“We have a lot of young talent this year…but it’s stepping up, and our goalies are a part of that,” Foley said. “It’s going a little bit better than I thought.”
“We don’t have as many guys as last year,” Knapp said. “But they did their job, and I did my job, and it worked out well.”
Serra will try to rebound at Kirk Nevin Arena this Thursday night when it takes on Greensburg Central Catholic in further non-section action at 9:15, while Mars will try to stay unbeaten against winless Knoch in non-section play Monday night at the Valley Sports Complex at 7:00.
Check out highlights of this game, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
Be sure to revisit the Mr. High School Sports blog Monday evening for our live in-game blog from Ice-O-Plex as Pittsburgh Central Catholic faces off against Peters Township in Class AAA action at 6:30!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)