By Matt Popchock


High school hockey players in these parts sure don’t get much time to celebrate the start of a new calendar year. Tonight the puck is already set to drop on the second half of the 2011-12 PIHL regular season.

Seventeen games across all four classifications are on Monday’s slate, but the excitement certainly doesn’t end there. We’ve gone ahead and looked at the rest of the calendar to pinpoint ten significant dates in the 2012 portion of the regular campaign:

TONIGHT: Erie Cathedral Prep at Chartiers Valley, 7:10 PM, Mount Lebanon Ice Arena; Serra Catholic at Quaker Valley, 7:30 PM, Airport Ice Arena – Hey, we wouldn’t bother counting tonight’s games unless a couple of them mattered, right? The surprising Ramblers begin one of the league’s most brutal second-half schedules against Chartiers Valley and November Player of the Month Justin Sabilla, Class AA’s top goal scorer entering January.

Meanwhile, Serra will try to snap a six-game winning streak by the Quakers, the second-longest active streak in Class A, and also avenge a humbling 8-2 loss to QV at the Rostraver Ice Garden Dec. 15. The Eagles lead Section 1 and have played well on the road, but they need to prove themselves against elite teams.

Jan. 3: Mount Lebanon at North Allegheny, 6:30 PM, BladeRunners Warrendale – Canon-McMillan’s perfect start not withstanding, the Tigers, winners of five straight, are the hottest team in Class AAA, and before they rung in the new year, they used an upset of previously unbeaten Penn-Trafford to pull within two points of the Blue Devils for a share of the Section 2 lead. Trevor Nelson of Mount Lebanon is coming off a solid individual effort in the Pennsylvania Scholastic Showcase, an annual holiday exhibition tournament, while team scoring leader Joey Griffin has a five-game point streak for N.A.

Jan. 4: Ford City at Indiana, 8:00 PM, S&T Bank Arena – The Little Indians have returned their varsity team to the PIHL for 2011-12, and despite a relative lack of firepower, they’ve meshed well as a team and are working their way toward a Chiefs Cup Playoff spot. The Sabers have won five in a row, and the Open Class Section 3 front-runners have already pounded Indiana twice. We get the feeling Indiana needs these two points in order to avoid falling too far out of the section title race.

Jan. 6 & 13: The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Outdoor Charity Series – It started out as one game between Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park inspired by the inaugural NHL Winter Classic. Now, for the fourth season in a row, several PIHL teams get to play regular season contests at both the South Park and North Park Ice Rinks, and each game raises ticket proceeds exclusively for a specific cause. The games that immediately jump out at us are Westmont Hilltop-Quaker Valley on the 6th, a battle for playoff positioning atop Class A, and North Allegheny-Seneca Valley on the 13th, a Class AAA Section 2 rematch of what turned out to be last season’s most exciting OCS game. (Check out the “Mr. High School Sports” blog later this week for more on the Outdoor Charity Series.)

Jan. 22: PIHL All-Star Event, 11:30 AM, Rostraver Ice Garden – This one is pretty self-explanatory. Unless you watch a lot of amateur hockey, this is probably your best opportunity to see the biggest pool of the top high school talent in western Pennsylvania in the same place at the same time. The refurbished Garden is hosting all four games for the second season in a row (the league usually waits two years before switching venues).

Feb. 9: Bishop Canevin vs. Chartiers Valley, 9:10 PM, Mount Lebanon Ice Arena – When these Class AA Section 2 rivals first met Dec. 8, we saw two hat tricks and another heroic tap-in by 2011 playoff hero Randy Unger on the same night in an 8-7 Crusader victory, one of the wildest games of the entire PIHL season. This neutral-site encore looms large for both, as 2012 begins with first place in the section completely up in the air.

Feb. 21: Quaker Valley at Mars, 6:30 PM, BladeRunners Warrendale – Even with so much hockey yet to be played, to say that these are the two clear-cut Penguins Cup favorites in Class A is not necessarily a leap of faith. Three-time winner and two-time state champion Mars looks awesome once again, and the Quakers, who fell to the Planets 4-3 on Halloween night, are the only team in the classification to really push them. This rematch will very likely be a preview of the festivities at CONSOL Energy Center.

Feb. 27: Penn-Trafford at Canon-McMillan, 8:45 PM, Ice-O-Plex at Southpointe – They were the top two squads in Class AAA during the first half of the season, and if not for the Warriors’ aforementioned loss, they would be deadlocked atop the overall standings. Nothing about Canon-Mac surprises us; the Big Macs are coming off Penguins Cup silver, and, with a balanced offense that leads the classification in total goals, they look poised to contend again. But who would’ve thought Penn-Trafford would boast three of Class AAA’s top five scorers, including top goal scorer Dan Maier and top point-getter/Player of the Month Conlan Sodrosky? Although that team has its work cut out holding onto the Section 4 lead, this game has high entertainment value.

Mar. 8: Plum at Latrobe, 8:15 PM, Kirk Nevin Arena – Normally the Wildcats wouldn’t have much trouble securing the Section 4 title, but Plum has put up a heck of a fight since moving down to Class AA for this season. The Mustangs already own a 4-3 overtime win over Latrobe at Valley Sports Complex Nov. 14. These programs couldn’t be further apart in terms of recent postseason fortunes, so for Plum to strike lightning twice and possibly break that team’s stranglehold on the section would be a huge ego boost going into the Penguins Cup Playoffs.

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