By Matt Popchock


The road to the Penguins Cup–or, for the Open Class teams, the Open Cup–is never quite the same from year to year. But Route 22 still represents a long stretch of that road, as a number of teams east of Pittsburgh have started strong in all four classifications.

Veteran head coach Art McQuillan told me a while back he believes Westmont Hilltop (4-1-1) can build off last season’s Penguins Cup Semifinal appearance. Well, the verdict is in, and “The Judge” has his Hilltoppers playing some inspired hockey. They’ve jumped out to the lead in Class A Section 4 with a five-game unbeaten streak, including Monday’s 2-2 tie with Hampton at Ice Connection.

In Class AAA the “Penn” is currently mightier. Penn-Trafford, which has opened its season on a seven-game win streak, just might be for real. The Warriors are ranked among the top five squads offensively and defensively in the classification, and three of their scorers are in the top ten entering Tuesday.

On the other hand, I’ve seen teams from Section 4 start red-hot, then fold like a cheap tent and not even make the playoffs, and Penn-Trafford’s toughest stretch of its schedule has yet to come. But it’s certainly a fun team to watch.

The eastern programs in the Open Class are usually fun to watch too, and this season appears no different. Doug Anthony and his staff have done a nice job resurrecting Ford City’s varsity team since it rejoined the PIHL several years ago, and the Sabers, at 4-2-1, are looking good in the number two spot in Section 3. They’ve allowed just 18 goals, tied with section leader Indiana for second-fewest in the classification.

Greensburg-Salem seems to be blazing a trail to the Open Cup. The Golden Lions are off to an 8-0 start behind the sick scoring of Sean Beichner, who leads the Open Class with 22 goals, including an incredible seven short-handed tallies.

The Open Class is a collection of programs trying to rebuild and schools that want to play high school hockey, but need to combine with neighboring districts (what the league calls “co-op” teams) due to manpower issues. So the level of play isn’t always as high as the other (“pure”) classifications, but Beichner has always been an impressive player. I’m not surprised by his success, though we certainly don’t see this much team success from Salem all the time.

We don’t see Gateway playing decent hockey all the time either. But the Gators have taken advantage of a weak Class AA Section 3 and have taken charge with a 4-2-0 start.

This team is something of an enigma. Gateway owns wins over Montour and West Allegheny, but also got its doors blown off by the Indians in a rematch, and had trouble with a Franklin Regional team that it manhandled early in the season. The Gators can win their section, but whether they’re a viable playoff team remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Latrobe (5-2-0) has served notice it will remain one of the top teams in Class AA after rewriting the script that played out at CONSOL Energy Center last March.

The Wildcats saw their run of three consecutive state titles come to an end in the Penguins Cup Semifinals when Bishop Canevin defeated them in overtime.

Those two teams went to sudden death in the rematch at Kirk Nevin Arena in Greensburg last Thursday, and this time it was the hosts who played “Beat The Clock.” Josh Singley’s goal right before time expired in the extra period gave the Wildcats an amazing 4-3 win.

Singley is one of several players who has helped Latrobe overcome significant roster turnover in the wake of all those Penguins and Pennsylvania Cups. That turnover includes a new head coach, Eugene Ray, who believes the past has strongly influenced the present.

“We try to be very consistent with our systems, starting at the freshman level, and we’re very cognizant of how we develop our players,” he said. “Plus, this is my tenth year with the program…and we’ve been fortunate to have good numbers and good talent throughout.

“We keep the game simple,” Ray added. “That’s what it’s about, and we try to maintain a real good defensive philosophy.”

Latrobe, which, to Ray’s point, has been one of the top defensive teams in the league, kept pace with surprising Plum (5-1-0), another east Pittsburgh program looking strong, with a 7-1 rout of Kiski Area at the Penguins Pond at South Side Works Monday.

The Mustangs, like Gateway, have been aided by a weak stretch in their schedule in the early stages of the season, but don’t take them lightly; they own a 4-3 upset of Latrobe at Valley Sports Complex Nov. 14 that was part of their ongoing five-game winning streak.

Speaking of the Penguins Pond, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the increased number of outdoor games this season.

It’s nice to see the PIHL do more than merely celebrate its elite programs, because there’s plenty of opportunity to do that. I’m glad some teams we wouldn’t normally see playing on a big stage get to do so. But too much outdoor hockey can also cheapen the value of the event–and that’s exactly what it should be, an event. I’m sure that’s something none of us want to see happen.

Some of the matchups scheduled for Penguins Pond look compelling, like Tuesday night’s Class A contest between Serra Catholic and South Fayette–Section 1 rivals that played each other tough twice last season. But some of them also look like clunkers.

Last season the PIHL did the right thing. It picked a handful of teams to play a “Winter Classic” series, including Allderdice and Carrick, two Open Class teams that weren’t spectacular but still made sense for this event because it was a geographic rivalry, and because it was a good matchup. Again, the key word in that sentence is event.

Class A was left out of the loop, but two Class A teams still get to play one of the Outdoor Charity Series games every season, so eventually those kids get their chance to play outdoor hockey anyway.

Kudos to the Penguins for giving the league the extra ice time this fall/winter, and I’m sure the PIHL appreciates the money. But all things considered, including the unusually mild weather that can make the ice tougher to maintain, one really good game from each classification at Penguins Pond during the holiday break would have been just fine.

If athletes really are glorified entertainers, then I’m for following one of the cardinal rules of entertainment: leave ’em wanting more.

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