By Matt Popchock

Road trip!  No, that’s not just a line from one of Mr. High School Sports’ favorite movies; it’s also what he’ll be doing Thursday night, as part of our high school hockey coverage…albeit a much shorter one than originally planned, due to the anticipated snow.  There’s an intriguing contest between heated Class AAA rivals in Bethel Park that highlights this week’s PIHL Preview, but that’s not all that’s happening as the rest of the league skates into the weekend.  So without further ado, here’s what’s coming Thursday night to a rink near you:


South Fayette (9-5-1) @ South Park (3-8-0) (6:40) – Ice Castle

Not to toot his own horn, but at the beginning of the season Mr. High School Sports speculated South Fayette might be the most improved team in Class A, and the Lions are making him look prophetic after clawing their way back from a rough stretch with ongoing streaks of four straight wins and six games unbeaten.  They’ll only have five left in the regular season after Thursday, so the opportunities to pad their superior point total are dwindling, as Serra Catholic continues to lead Section 3 with a superior point percentage and games in hand.  The Eagles, meanwhile, are looking to fly back into the Penguins Cup Playoff picture as they go for their third victory in four games.  Ryan Shultz set up three South Fayette goals in the first meeting, a 5-2 decision over South Park at BladeRunners Bethel Park Dec. 7, and after amassing four goals and seven points in the Lions’ last two victories, he leads them with 16 assists and 22 points.  Goal-scoring leader Chad Errey, son of you-know-who, had six of his 11 tallies during a four-game goal streak that ended last Thursday.  Billy Walker did not play in that December meeting, but he has four goals in his last three and leads the Eagles with 12 points.  With a new coaching staff South Park continues to look for chemistry and growth as it tries to bolster an offense that has managed just 31 goals, fourth-fewest in the classification.


Latrobe (9-2-1) @ Elizabeth Forward (7-3-1) (9:20) – Rostraver Ice Garden

EF bench boss Larry Briggs, one of the more underrated head coaches in the PIHL, has stuck around and done a nice job rebuilding the Warriors, winners of three in a row and unbeaten in six, and bringing them to No. 4 in the MSA Sports rankings in ultra-competitive Section 3.  As they try to improve upon their No. 5 playoff position in Class AA, they prepare for a significant measuring-stick game against the visiting Wildcats, MSA’s No. 2 squad and proud owners of a four-game winning streak.  Believe it or not, Elizabeth Forward’s 67 goals are nine more than the state champs have, making them the fourth-most productive offense in the classification. They can thank PIHL December Player of the Month Justin Delmaster for that, as he has registered nine of his 15 goals in his last four outings, and Daniel Neff has also come on strong with 18 points in just nine appearances and points in six straight.  Both have their work cut out against the top defensive squad in Class AA, backstopped by Shane Brudnok, who leads the classification with a 1.70 GAA and .921 save percentage, and has yielded just eight goals during the win streak.  Zach LaDuke, who moved to second in the classification with 22 goals Monday, enjoyed his fourth hat trick of the year in a win over Greensburg C.C., and puts a 10-game goal streak on the line.


Mount Lebanon (4-6-1) @ Bethel Park (6-3-2) (8:20) – BladeRunners Ice Complex, Bethel Park

Playing in the PIHL Winter Classic and earning an outdoor victory seems to have brought a little holiday magic the way of Post-Gazette No. 4 Bethel Park, which has won four in a row, the second-longest active streak in Class AAA, and catapulted to second place in Section 1 behind Penguins Cup champion Canon-McMillan.  The Black Hawks have recorded three shutouts in a row, and catching them might be a tall order for their young arch-rivals.  Still, Lebo will likely give Bethel its best; it has to, because current 12-seed Mount Lebanon is trying to get off the bubble.  Bethel captain Michael Shipley, after moving to the blue line, has helped the Hawks yield just 28 goals, third-fewest in Class AAA, and though Shipley, a PIHL Player of the Month for December, only scored four points (1 G, 3 A) that month, it’s more than the mere three goals Bethel allowed.  The number five scorer in the classification, Dan Kucerovy, notched a hat trick against Seneca Valley last Friday and has eight of his 22 points in two January games, while Mount Lebanon’s Christopher Ford, who netted both Lebo goals in a 2-2 tie with Bethel Dec. 6, has also caught fire with four goals and eight points in his last three games.  Trevor Nelson, who has 10 points in his last three, will also try to carry a Blue Devil team that has struggled to score at times.  Check back with “Mr. High School Sports” on later for a complete recap of this game.


Ligonier Valley (5-6-1) @ Greensburg-Salem (7-5-0) (7:15) – Kirk Nevin Arena

Two section rivals and two teams that would face one another in the Chiefs Cup Playoffs if the season ended today will square off in Greensburg tonight, and although the Mounties can’t catch Salem with a victory, the Golden Lions can catch the team they’re pursuing, first-place Kiski Area, if they prevail.  Greensburg-Salem dropped two in a row to Kiski before bouncing back with a decisive win over Derry, and team goal-scoring leader Sean Beichner exploded for four tallies and six points in that Section 4 contest last Friday.  His 23 goals put him among the top five in the Open Class, and he has accounted for the game-winning score in six of the Lions’ victories, as the team has racked up a section-best 59 goals.  Shawn Sperlik, who scored two of Salem’s three goals against Kiski in those losses, has given him plenty of help, registering multiple points in six of his last seven.  But can they solve Lig’ Valley’s defense, which has held four of its last five foes to two goals or less, and has allowed 30 goals, the fewest in Section 4?  A lot of that success has to do with iron man Matthew Erlichmann, who is also coming off a win over Derry and has a 2.44 GAA and .908 save percentage that look impressive in the offensive-minded Open Class.  In addition, never overlook Dace Ludwig, one of the most capable forwards in the classification, who leads the team with 18 goals and seems to be coming out of a December scoring funk.

For continuing coverage of the PIHL and Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!