By Matt Popchock


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Seven months ago Upper St. Clair ended both a Penguins Cup drought and a Pennsylvania Cup drought, both of which spanned more than two decades.

With heavy roster turnover and a very controversial coaching change, will 2011-12 be the start of another, or the dawn of a new era for a program coming off one of the greatest moments in its storied history?

The Panthers begin their title defense Monday night at 8:20 at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon against the visiting Canon-McMillan Big Macs, the Class AAA champion they dethroned in sudden-death overtime at CONSOL Energy Center in the Penguins Cup Final Mar. 20.

On paper, the balance of power in Section 1 seems to have already been tipped in the Big Macs’ favor. Most of their 2010-11 runners-up are returning, whereas several players integral to USC’s dramatic run, including sharpshooters C.J. Murray and Justin Selep, are gone.

One important player who remains, however, is Mike Sweeney, who produced the game-winning tally against top-seeded Fox Chapel in the Class AAA semis, and scored the wraparound goal on Ryan Palonis that put Upper St. Clair on the first charter bus to West Chester.

He scored four goals and ten points during the previous regular season, and he’ll be counted on to help spark an unproven offense that looks decidedly different from the one that led Class AAA in goals entering the 2011 Penguins Cup Playoffs. USC also hopes for a breakout year from fellow forward Connor Ackerman, who gets ready to begin his first season as a full-fledged varsity player.

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The Panthers will have to rely on strong defensive play to alleviate those growing pains, and fortunately for their sake, postseason hero Mike Ambrose is back between the pipes. He was brilliant in blanking the Foxes before stifling the Big Macs, and later, LaSalle College, en route to the state title after winning five of six regular season contests with a 3.03 GAA that shrunk significantly in the playoffs.

His counterpart from the finals, Ryan Palonis, has graduated, which puts some pressure on new starting goalie Ryan Christian, who is expected to make his 2011-12 debut Monday. Christian played in parts of six games last year, posting a 1.32 GAA and .938 save percentage.

Fortunately for his sake, he has one of the top defensive corps in the classification in front of him, led by Alex Baskakov, who has cemented his reputation as the most dangerous offensive defensemen in Class AAA, if not the entire league. Baskakov sniped 14 goals and finished with 30 points last season, while Nick Harrison logged quality minutes as well.

The Big Macs allowed the third-fewest goals in the classification last season, but they won with balance; Canon-Mac scored an even 100, tying the team for fifth in Class AAA. With top scorer Brett Oldaker gone, leading the charge will be second-leading scorer and All-Star teammate Zach McKown, who pumped in 16 goals and 35 points. In addition, Artem Prus and Anthony Tonkovich bring work ethic and chemistry to a team that forechecks exceptionally well.

This will mark the first game as head coach for USC’s Gary Klapkowski, a former varsity assistant and head JV coach who played at Serra Catholic and has several years of junior and minor league experience. In contrast, Canon-Mac’s consistency of personnel extends to its bench, as Yuri Krivokhija, the former Soviet pro who has become one of the most successful coaches in Class AAA, returns for a fourth season.

Visit this blog on Tuesday for a recap of this game, and for an opportunity to view a tape-delayed broadcast, courtesy of my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.

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