By Matt Popchock
Two of the top teams in Class AAA have an opportunity to shuffle the cards in the postseason deck when they match wits at Ice-O-Plex in Southpointe for a 9:05 faceoff Thursday night.
North Allegheny needs a win on the road to forge a virtual first-place tie with Section 2 leader Mount Lebanon, which is idle until next Tuesday’s meeting with Seneca Valley. Speaking of which, the Tigers blanked the section rival Raiders 2-0 in the UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Outdoor Charity Series last Friday at North Park.
Most recently, however, the Tigers are coming off a 3-2 loss to undefeated Canon-McMillan at BladeRunners Warrendale Tuesday evening. They currently hold down the No. 6 spot in the overall standings; Norwin, despite having one fewer point, sits in fifth place by virtue of its superior win percentage.
Peters Township has acquitted itself well since moving up from Class AA. Although the Big Macs may be running away with the Section 1 crown at the moment, the Indians have a firm grip on second place in that grouping, and if the Penguins Cup Playoffs started today, they would be seeded fourth.
A win at home by Peters Thursday night would tie it with Lebo for the No. 3 seed. The top four teams in the Class AAA bracket receive first-round byes.
This appears to be one of the more evenly-matched contests we’ve studied all season, and these teams know a thing or two about being evenly matched.
They tied 3-3 in their only other meeting, back on Oct. 25 in Warrendale, the season opener for both. Alex DeBolt scored an apparent game-winning goal with 40 seconds left in regulation before Marty Hubert answered with his second of the game for N.A. with six seconds to spare to force OT.
The Indians are coming off another tie, a rare scoreless deadlock with section rival and state champion Upper St. Clair at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon last Thursday. Brian Baker made 26 saves to preserve the tie, the first 0-0 draw in the PIHL in nearly five years.
However, the Indians will be without the services of their number one goaltender and five other players for this game due to a concurrent amateur team tournament in Boston, to say nothing of head coach Rick Tingle’s absence.
That leaves Peters Township in a difficult position as they try to tame the Tigers’ offense, which has improved considerably this season. Veteran coach Jim Black rolls three lines that move the puck equally well, led by junior All-Star forward Joe Griffin, who is pacing N.A. with eight goals and 21 points.
But the Indians are a deep team defensively, even without Baker. Backup Jessie Borne, who has appeared in three of the team’s last four games, is 1-0-1 with a 2.96 GAA in limited action this season, and a corps of blue-liners featuring All-Star Aaron McDonough has helped Peters allow just 24 goals, the fewest in the classification.
Borne’s only win this season came against another Section 2 opponent, a 7-4 decision over Seneca Valley in Warrendale Jan. 10 in which he made 15 saves.
Plus, the Tigers have cooled off after heating up right before the holiday break, having been held to just two goals in each of their last three games. They need Griffin, who has three game-winning goals but just one point in three games following a six-game point streak, to supply a spark.
Keep an eye on fellow All-Star Jake Hubert as well. The senior captain scored a big insurance goal in the Outdoor Charity Series to give him ten points on the season (5 G + 5 A), which doesn’t sound like much, but he can dominate on faceoffs and is on track for a career year.
Despite its own returning talent, Peters has had issues with offensive inconsistency too, just one year after being one of the most prolific teams in the PIHL. A Penguin-esque rash of injuries has kept the Indians on their toes, and they’ll have to really earn their keep again tonight.
Patrick Hannan, son of former Penguin Dave Hannan, is the team’s top point-getter (7 G + 11 A), but he’s one of the players out of town, and dynamic All-Star Taylor Cox, who was concussed early in the season, is out with the flu, which deprives that lineup of 15 points (6 G + 9 A).
Meanwhile, North Allegheny also is a well-schooled team defensively, which has always been the case under Black. They protect the puck and make sure tonight’s probable goaltender, Matthew Goda, who ranks third in Class AAA with his nine wins and has seen his GAA drop to 2.41, doesn’t have to work too hard. Defensemen Dalton Landman, another All-Star, and Shawn Baird, are tough to play against at both ends.
Fortunately, though, assistant coach Mike Antonucci’s pantry is not empty. Davan Groom has scored a team-best 11 goals and will skate on his second line Thursday night. But with less depth, the burden definitely falls upon his number one unit to play to its potential. Senior All-Star Cole Snyder and winger Trevor Recktenwald have combined for four special teams tallies and four game-winners.
Overall those two have contributed seven goals apiece, while Snyder enters with 14 points, and Reckentwald 13.
Since Goda isn’t seeing a ton of quality shots–he’s only made 16 saves in each of his last two games–if you take enough, you can break him. This will be a tough endeavor for N.A. if Peters plays its typically solid north-and-south game and gets pucks to the net.
Tonight’s game is slated for a live telecast on the PIHL Network, the first game in league history to be streamed live on video.
Be sure to visit that site to catch tonight’s game, and to check out our “PIHL Rink Report” Friday for more on this, and other high school hockey news.
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