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“Mr. High School Sports” – PIHL Rink Report: All-Star Drama, Class A Upset, and More

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(Image courtesy of Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Canon-McMillan senior forward Zach McKown’s wrist shot from the top of the left wing circle 2:47 into overtime gave the Southwest Conference a 6-5 win over the Northeast Conference in the Class AAA All-Star Game, the final contest of the 2012 PIHL All-Star Event, at Rostraver Ice Garden Sunday.

The Southwest Conference All-Stars erased a 5-0 deficit midway through the second period to earn a split of the event. McDowell senior forward Alex Margraf scored twice to spark the rally, and North Allegheny captain Jake Hubert scored with five minutes left in regulation to force OT, ironically beating McKown’s teammate, Ryan Christian.

In the All-Star Event, players will occasionally switch teams if there is an absence, and an alternate can not be found in due time.

Earlier in the day, a hat trick by Chartiers Valley senior Bryan Pustay catapulted the Southwest Conference to an easy 8-2 victory in the Class AA game.

In the Class A game, Freeport junior forward Greg Newman’s goal 8:36 into the third proved to be the difference in a 6-5 win for the Northeast.

Carrick forward Nico Aggazio registered the game-winning goal and an assist in the second period of the Northeast’s 6-3 win in the Open Class game.

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Fittingly, Aggazio’s coach, Chris Chiusano, presided over the Northeast Conference team on what was already a red-letter day for that program.

Senior goaltender Josh Brown was named one of four PIHL Players of the Month for December–the first Player of the Month honoree in Carrick history. In fact, he wasn’t even aware the award existed before getting a congratulatory call from Chiusano.

Brown, who has been the iron man between the pipes for the Cougars this year, won three of his four starts in December, posting a 2.25 GAA and .934 save percentage in that span. His 34 saves loomed large in a 4-2 upset of section leader Greensburg-Salem at Ice Castle Dec. 9, the Golden Lions’ first loss of the season.

Carrick (7-7-0) sits in third place in Section 4, holding onto the fifth Chiefs Cup Playoff spot.

Brown is one of four Players of the Month who will be recognized at CONSOL Energy Center during the Penguins’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs next Tuesday.

The other three are Fox Chapel freshman and fellow netminder Scott Trellis, Serra Catholic senior forward Garner Kraemer, and Chartiers Valley senior defenseman Jake Gudewicz.

Trellis has helped salvage a tough season for Fox Chapel since head coach Cory Rome gave him the starting job. The second freshman in as many months to be named a Player of the Month, Trellis allowed only seven goals in three appearances, and posted a .940 save percentage in them. He declined his All-Star invitation, but he sure earned it; he made more than 40 saves in wins over AAA-Sec. 3 rival Shaler and former section rival Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

The Foxes (3-10-0) remain two points behind Shaler for the last playoff spot in Class AAA.

Kraemer played admirably during a tough month for the Eagles. Serra dropped one-sided decisions to Penguins Cup contenders Quaker Valley and Mars, and tied A-Sec. 1 rival South Fayette at Penguins Pond before a nice win over South Park before the holiday break. Nevertheless, the co-captain racked up six goals, including three on the power play, and 11 points in December.

He entered the new calendar year with a nine-game point streak, and he began a new streak recently. Kraemer, who has drawn interest from RMU’s Division I program, now has multiple points in three in a row, and with 21 goals and 34 points, he sits third in overall scoring in Class A.

Gudewicz, in addition to recording five of his six points (1 G + 4 A) in four games last month, played solidly at both ends of the ice for the Colts (8-4-0), who remain in the thick of the playoff race despite falling six points off the pace in AA-Sec. 2.

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Our game of the week, as featured in this blog Tuesday, will be Westmont Hilltop’s Class A non-section meeting with Hampton at the Cambria County War Memorial Tuesday night.

The Talbots, last year’s surprise silver medalists, are atop Section 4, and are the least scored-upon team in the classification, while the Hilltoppers continue to lead Section 3…and they’re coming off their biggest win in quite some time.

In what would definitely qualify as a “statement game,” Westmont Hilltop upset two-time Pennsylvania Cup champion Mars, 3-2, at BladeRunners Warrendale Friday night, snapping a season-opening nine-game win streak by the Planets.

Mars, which defeated Westmont Hilltop in the 2011 Penguins Cup Semifinals, has been easily the top Class A team in the state over the past couple years. Their dominance has reached the point where the program was mentioned in ESPN Rise, that company’s national high school sports publication.

But the Hilltoppers (7-3-2), who have shown they can hang with the top teams in the classification, got two big goals from All-Star captain and top scorer Noah McQuillan to stun the champs. Max Master and Austin Heakins scored power play goals five minutes apart in the second period to give Mars a 2-1 lead before Stephen DeMarco tied it with just four seconds left in the period, and McQuillan won it 3:22 into the third.

This leaves Canon-McMillan (14-0-0), last year’s Class AAA silver medalist and the ’09-’10 Penguins Cup champion, as the only unbeaten team in the league. That lead is led by junior All-Star Anthony Tonkovich, who has 15 goals, including a Class AAA-best four game-winners, and 30 points. He frequently skates on a line with the aforementioned McKown.

On Monday night at 8:30 Canon-McMillan hosts Section 1 rival Bethel Park, winners of three straight, and the last team to defeat Canon-Mac in regular season play. The Black Hawks beat them 4-3 in overtime Mar. 3, 2011 in last year’s regular season finale, only to lose to the Big Macs in the Penguins Cup Semifinals.

Canon-McMillan already owns a 4-2 win over Bethel Park back on Dec. 15, but the road to perfection will not be easy for the Big Macs. Their brutal February schedule consists of games against Section 4 challenger Norwin, playoff-bound section rival Peters Township, and Penn-Trafford, the second-best team in Class AAA.

The 2007-08 Pine-Richland Rams, which featured one-and-done freshman phenom (and current member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization) Brandon Saad, were the last Triple-A team to run the table in PIHL regular season play.

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Speaking of Peters Township, the Indians lost at Ice-O-Plex to North Allegheny last Thursday. Cody Black scored twice, including a Lemieux-esque goal from behind the net, in a 3-2 victory, but perhaps we should keep this one in context?

Five skaters and No. 1 goalie Brian Baker were missing from Peters Township’s lineup due to travel team commitments. Furthermore, it is normal for some kids to miss the All-Star Event because of other hockey commitments, and this past weekend was no exception. It’s a scheduling problem indigenous to many PIHL teams, and it prompted a discussion amongst ourselves and league officials during Sunday’s All-Star games.

Normally, in other states, amateur hockey teams play part of their season before the start of high school hockey season. Those amateur leagues shut down so that the high school teams can play their season in full tapestry before resuming operations, so as not to create such scheduling issues.

I’m told the PIHL has tried to work with the amateur hockey community to adopt that model in the interest of better coordinating everyone’s efforts, and preventing PIHL teams from being handicapped by player absences at certain times. I’m also told the amateur leagues have been very stubborn on this issue year after year.

There are two sides to every story, and playing on an amateur team with other elite players is often the best way for a kid to sharpen his skills and get noticed. But if what I’m hearing is true, I chalk this up to a textbook case of student-athletes being ironically more mature than their adult counterparts.

We always hear parents complain about kids shirking academic responsibility. So why not give them one less excuse to do so by balancing their schedules?

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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