By Matt Popchock
CLASS A FIRST ROUND:
SCHEDULE (seeding in parentheses):
(10) Bishop McCort at (7) Freeport – Monday, 7:30, at Belmont Complex
(9) Thomas Jefferson at (8) South Fayette – Tuesday, 7:00, at BladeRunners in Bethel Park
BYES: (1) Quaker Valley*, (2) Mars, (3) Hampton*, (4) Kittanning*, (5) Serra Catholic*, (6) Westmont Hilltop
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If we see enough chalk through the first two rounds of this bracket, which is possible, given the disparity between the top six and the bottom four, we could see Mars and Hampton meet in the semifinals for a rematch of last year’s championship affair. Freeport flew under the radar in 2007, when the Yellowjackets upset Quaker Valley for their only Penguins Cup crown, and it has done the same this season. That team could sneak up on the rest of the field. A probable quarterfinal matchup between Hampton and Westmont Hilltop could be fun to watch; those teams skated to a 2-2 tie before the Talbots won the rematch, 3-2, at the War Memorial on a late goal. Kittanning hasn’t generated the buzz it did a year ago, but the Wildcats were the best offensive team in Class A, led by scoring champ and February Player of the Month Heinz Koster, and the hottest, winning eight in a row. Quaker Valley also boasts a recent Player of the Month, two-way forward Jayson Lottes, and the Quakers were the least scored-upon team in Class A. Mars, led by travel hockey teammates Nick Blaney, Austin Heakins, and Joe Bender, is going for its third consecutive state title and ultra-rare fourth straight Penguins Cup. Thomas Jefferson is led by another recent Player of the Month honoree, Kyle Miller, one of the top goal scorers in the classification.
AND THE WINNER IS…? I’m tempted to pick Quaker Valley, but I’m going to stay true to preseason inclinations and say Mars. Don’t get me wrong, a championship run by the Quakers wouldn’t surprise me. They have phenomenal goaltending, they have size, and they play with heart. Besides, there’s a reason only three other teams in western Pennsylvania history (Meadville, Peters Township, Bishop McCort) have won four of these things in a row. But I think Mars’ 7-0 loss to QV last month will be a wake-up call, not an omen. I’ve seen the Planets at their worst, but I’ve also seen them at their best. I like how they move the puck, and their defense is still pretty solid. Those are the two best teams in Class A without a doubt in my mind, but I like the Planets to show command of the big stage.
CLASS AA FIRST ROUND:
SCHEDULE (seeding in parentheses):
(10) North Hills at (7) Plum – Monday, 7:00, at Valley Sports Complex
(9) Gateway* at (8) Moon – Monday, 7:30, at Airport Ice Arena
BYES: (1) West Allegheny*, (2) Chartiers Valley*, (3) Bishop Canevin, (4) Erie Cathedral Prep, (5) Latrobe*, (6) Pine-Richland
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Assuming all goes to plan opening night, defending Penguins Cup and Pennsylvania Cup champion Bishop Canevin could host Pine-Richland, featuring ex-Penguin Troy Loney’s son, Clint Loney, in the quarterfinals. The Rams matched the Crusaders’ offensive output during the regular campaign, and they upset Canevin, 4-1, early in the season at Mount Lebanon Ice Arena. West Allegheny, like any top seed, has a lot riding on this year’s playoffs. This is the best hockey we’ve seen from that program, which won 15 in a row at one point, since Tim Veach took over as head coach, but the Indians have been somewhat allergic to playoff success. They’ve never been the overall standings champ, and the last time they came close, in 2006, they were immediately knocked off by Peters Township. Jon Levitt leads that team up front, and Jason Kumpfmiller might be the top goalie in the entire league. We’re privately hoping for a collision between Canevin and Char’ Valley in the semifinals; those section rivals have already staged an 8-7 overtime game and a thrilling 5-3 contest. Matt Walsh scored five times in those two games for the Crusaders, who won the first meeting, and Justin Sabilla, who led all “pure” PIHL classifications with 53 goals, combined for seven, including a hat trick in Chartiers Valley’s February win. Walsh finished second to Sabilla in the scoring race, but whether sophomore Randy Unger has conquered his concussion symptoms will go a long way toward determining Canevin’s fate.
AND THE WINNER IS…? This is the most difficult field to forecast. Latrobe, not far removed from three-peating as state champions, is still well-peopled and well-coached, though the Wildcats have struggled more often against elite teams this season. Jeff Tebaldi has done a phenomenal job resurrecting Cathedral Prep, which hasn’t won a Penguins Cup since 1984, and the Ramblers were the second highest-scoring team in Class AA. How will they handle this new, self-generated pressure to win? The Crusaders have the talent, but they haven’t been healthy, and they’ve been starved for goals recently. Really, any team that plays cohesive, consistent defense, and has a goaltender capable of standing on his head can turn heads in this tournament, and there’s a lot of that in Class AA this year. Sabilla is personally assaulting the rest of the PIHL, making Chartiers Valley the sexy pick, but I worry that the Colts are a little too much of a one-man team. With deductive reasoning, and guarded optimism, I’ll take West Allegheny because that team has struck the best balance between offense and defense down the stretch.
CLASS AAA FIRST ROUND:
SCHEDULE (seeding in parentheses):
(12) Shaler at (5) Peters Township – Monday, 7:30, at Ice-O-Plex in Southpointe
(11) McDowell at (6) Bethel Park – Monday, 8:00, at BladeRunners in Bethel Park
(10) State College at (7) Upper St. Clair – Tuesday, 7:00, at Ice Castle
(9) Pittsburgh Central Catholic* at (8) Norwin – Tuesday, 8:40, at Center Ice
BYES: (1) Penn-Trafford*, (2) Canon-McMillan*, (3) North Allegheny*, (4) Mount Lebanon
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: We’ve seen this movie before, and the screenplay is a testament to what a great coach and teacher of defense Jim McVay is. Bethel Park, proud owners of an 11-game winning streak, is the hottest team in the PIHL after a horrific start, and Alex Blum enters the postseason as the most feared netminder in the league, with the possible exception of Kumpfmiller. With a team goals-against average under 2.00, the Black Hawks are the least scored-upon squad in Class AAA entering tonight’s game. If they win, they might meet North Allegheny, whom they edged 2-1 in Warrendale ten days ago, once again. The Tigers, led by talented scorer Joey Griffin, are also strong on the back end, and N.A. has really tried to open things up offensively more than they normally would this season. Team chemistry is also strong with Mount Lebanon, which might have to face Peters Township in the quarterfinals. The Blue Devils beat the Indians two weeks ago, but Peters Township is a dynamic team with depth on the back end, and if Taylor Cox can stay healthy, it’ll be fun–and frightening–to watch him skate. Canon-McMillan strives for its third consecutive Penguins Cup Final appearance, and junior Anthony Tonkovich has led a gifted group of underclassmen that finished second in total offense. Penn-Trafford, which features February Player of the Month and 40-goal scorer Dan Maier, had three players in the top five in points, and has proven it can play with the top-tier clubs. Tuesday’s game between state champion Upper St. Clair, led by goaltender Mike Ambrose, and State College, led by dangerous scorer Dan Moscone, is interesting.
AND THE WINNER IS…? Penn-Trafford is a sentimental favorite, being a team that is nearing unprecedented heights. It has never won a major championship in hockey. But as is the case with Erie Cathedral Prep in Class AA, another of the surprise teams in the league, I want to see what happens now that the spotlight on the Warriors intensifies. Don’t get me wrong, a trip to CONSOL Energy Center is a strong possibility for that team, but let me throw this out there: last season’s champion in Class AAA was the third-place team in Section 1. Bethel Park ended the 2011-12 regular season as the third-place team in Section 1. Just saying. Having said it, although the Warriors did defeat Canon-McMillan on that school’s senior night, I think the best talent in the classification comes from the South Hills. I’ll take the Big Macs to make it two titles in three years, and I like either Peters Township or Bethel Park to challenge them.
* Denotes section champion.
FOR MORE PENGUINS CUP COVERAGE…
…check back here later for our live blog from Bethel Park Monday night.
…check out Joe Sager’s playoff preview in Monday’s Tribune-Review, which offers cutting-edge insight into all three tournaments:
…check out Chris Adamski’s playoff preview from the Post-Gazette, in which he breaks down Mars’ march toward history.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)