By Matt Popchock


The rebuilding Rams are coming off a playoff berth, but they are also the only team in Class AA Section 4 coming off a loss as they seek their first win of the new season against the Pennsylvania Cup champions in non-section action at the Mount Lebanon Ice Arena Thursday night at 7:10.

Last season Pine-Richland finished second in Section 1 with a 9-10-1 mark before bowing to section champ Peters Township in the Penguins Cup Quarterfinals. Pine-Richland began its 2011-12 campaign last Thursday with a 3-2 setback at the hands of Erie Cathedral Prep, the team it beat to open the 2011 postseason, at Mercyhurst College.

Zach Richey and Ryan Cole scored for the Rams, while Brendan Bagnato made 25 saves in defeat. Richey’s power play goal was all their special teams could muster, despite seeing 40 penalty minutes assessed to the Ramblers, including two game misconducts. In fact, a short-handed tally allowed to Christopher Coombs with under five minutes left proved to be the game-winner for Erie Prep.

Richey is one of Pine-Richland’s top returning forwards. He pumped in nine goals, including two on the man-advantage, and 19 points in 2010-11 as a sophomore. In addition, keep an eye on defenseman Scott McAliney, who led all 2011-12 returnees last season with 11 goals and 30 points, and enjoyed eight multiple-point games.

Bagnato will likely be Pine-Richland’s number one netminder after finishing his first varsity season with a 7-7-0 regular season record.

He made 27 saves in a 3-2 loss to Bishop Canevin at Mount Lebanon Ice Arena back on Nov. 15, 2010, the only meeting between these teams last year. It was a year that saw gold at the end of the rainbow for the Crusaders, who upset Peters Township at CONSOL Energy Center for their first Penguins Cup title since 1993 before knocking off Council Rock South to capture their first state crown since 1989.

Veteran coach Kevin Zielmanski led Canevin to those championships, and he also guided his team to a season-opening 6-3 victory over Plum at the Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington Oct. 24.

Bishop Canevin broke that game open with a four-goal second period that saw Matt Walsh score twice, while Penguins Cup Semifinal hero Randy Unger netted a pair. Walsh also finished with two assists.

Last winter Unger capped one of the most memorable seasons by a freshman in recent PIHL history with the game-winning overtime goal against three-time Pennsylvania Cup champion Latrobe, a goal that put the Crusaders into the Penguins Cup Final. He scored 16 goals, including five on the power play, and 34 points during the 2010-11 regular season, scoring multiple goals on five occasions.

Walsh was responsible for the game-winner against Council Rock South, and he’ll provide plenty of offensive ability to a Canevin squad that scored 113 goals last season, tied with Chartiers Valley for second-most in Class AA. He finished fifth in the classification with 22 goals and 51 points as a junior, as the Crusaders narrowly beat the Colts for the section title with a 16-4-0 mark.

New starting goaltender Nikita Meskin made 17 stops in the win over Plum last Monday. Whether he can provide the same stability as former All-Star Zack Daley remains to be seen, but the defense in front of him looks as strong as the group that allowed just 44 goals last year, the fourth-fewest in Class AA.

Be sure to revisit the “Mr. High School Sports” blog tomorrow for a recap of this game, including highlights courtesy of my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.

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