By Matt Popchock
West Allegheny closed the 2011-12 PIHL regular season with a goal differential of 72, the greatest in Class AA. The average margin of victory for the Indians, who captured the top spot in the classification for the first time ever, hovered around four goals.
But that is not to say they didn’t demonstrate a knack for drama this year.
There was plenty of that in the Pennsylvania Cup game at the RMU Island Sports Center in Coraopolis Sunday, only this time West Allegheny (21-4-0) found the storybook ending to its otherwise historic season just out of reach.
Returning Flyers Cup champion Council Rock South (24-4-2) outlasted the Indians 4-3 to capture their first state championship in a penalty-filled battle with a team just coming off its first Penguins Cup title. Over 60 minutes’ worth of violations were issued to both teams, most of them in the third period.
It would have been perfectly understandable for West A to suffer an on-ice hangover after the euphoria they had experienced at CONSOL Energy Center a mere 24 hours earlier, give or take. At the outset of this game, however, it was they who did the giving and the Golden Hawks who did the taking. West Allegheny, from the opening faceoff to that final, disappointing horn, played the same beautifully fearless brand of hockey that got the Indians to unsettled ground in the first place.
They set the high-flying tone for this matchup with early offensive zone pressure and another terrific individual effort from senior co-captain Jon Levitt. As a freshman he barely missed being named a first-ballot PIHL All-Star, and since evolved into one of the premier team leaders in the league, pacing West Allegheny with 27 goals and 46 points in regular season play, and five goals in the Penguins Cup Playoffs.
Levitt swooped in and made a partial breakaway a clean one, shirking a defenseman outside the Hawks’ blue line with one hand on his stick, driving the net, and beating Justin Houk upstairs for the game’s first goal.
The recent Player of the Month honoree only recorded one playoff assist prior to Sunday, but it was probably the biggest one he’ll ever notch in a sanctioned hockey game of any kind.
With the Penguins Cup Final against upstart Erie Cathedral Prep deadlocked 3-3, the Indians fought for a puck to the right of opposing goaltender Trey Brown. Levitt refused to let it come outside the Prep zone, as he protected it with his body, and dished right wing to Matt Grebosky, who beat Brown in one motion from the circle at the 5:58 mark of the first overtime to give West A its first major hockey championship in school history.
The other “Matty Ice” wasn’t done. He was just sitting in his office 70 seconds into the second period Sunday, waiting to fire one past Houk, from virtually the same spot, which gave West Allegheny a short-lived 2-1 lead.
That play was set up by a pass from Pat Coburn, who, quite frankly, deserved a goal, regardless of the outcome, given the grit he displayed against Council Rock South. Sure enough, Coburn got one, also on a power play, midway through the night to reclaim the lead for the Indians, with help from Levitt and team captain Jared DiSanti.
DiSanti contributed 34 points to West Allegheny’s regular campaign, to say nothing of his solid two-way play. That style of play was preached from the get-go by head coach Tim Veach when he took over the program a few years back. Only now he finally had developed his skill players enough to complement his talent on the back end.
The vertebrae of that back end was goaltender Jason Kumpfmiller, who made 28 saves in defeat. He led Class AA with a 1.63 GAA and .920 save percentage entering the postseason, and he did all he could to keep the Indians’ state championship dreams alive. The only thing that could have kept West Allegheny from maintaining that 3-2 lead was penalty trouble, and alas, it was penalty trouble they found.
Paul Cloud scored on a two-man advantage that began the third period, and with Levitt and Coburn sitting down, captain Dan Ufberg provided a game-winning power play strike for the Hawks during another 5-on-3 opportunity.
Maybe, on a different day, a couple of those calls go the other way. Maybe, on a different day, they aren’t made at all. It was an unfortunate ending to a season that, hopefully, on the whole, will be remembered in a positive light. It should be.
Because even if the window of opportunity for West Allegheny does temporarily close, with 11 seniors on their way out, those seniors set a new standard for the posterity of the program. West Allegheny hockey is no longer an also-ran.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)