By Matt Popchock
Three-time Penguins Cup champion and two-time Pennsylvania Cup champion Mars hadn’t played Hampton since that night at CONSOL Energy Center ten months ago, when gold medals and a trophy bigger than some of the players were at stake. But the way the Planets put down the Talbots, you’d think they’ve played the same opponent for the better part of their remarkable run atop PIHL Class A.
The top line of captain Joe Bender and assistants Nick Blaney and Austin Heakins overwhelmed one of the top goaltenders in the classification early and often en route to a convincing 6-2 victory over the Talbots (9-2-1) at BladeRunners Warrendale Tuesday night. That leaves the Planets (10-1-0) in temporary possession of the No. 2 Penguins Cup Playoff seed, four points behind Quaker Valley. Hampton hosts the Quakers in another important contest for playoff positioning Monday night.
Ten teams will qualify for postseason play in Class A, and the top six will receive first-round byes.
Cam Radna entered the contest with a .934 save percentage, the best among starting goaltenders in his classification, but Bender and Blaney each beat him twice, and Heakins chipped in four assists. The Pittsburgh Vipers teammates combined for 11 points to halt Hampton’s five-game winning streak and give the Planets back-to-back W’s with a game against winless Greensburg Central Catholic looming.
Bender broke the ice 6:18 into the game, and, unlike that ill-fated playoff meeting, the Talbots responded this time. Ian Wood beat backup goaltender Christian Knapp with a pretty backhander from below the left circle to tie the game with 10:55 expired in the first.
But Knapp, replacing academically ineligible starter Alex Stepke, kept his poise, eventually making 24 saves to earn his fifth win of the year, while Hampton lost its own. Bender made Rob Pavlik pay for an ill-advised hooking foul by slapping one in from the high slot for his 11th of the season less than a minute later and just six seconds into the power play chance. Another silly penalty, this one a holding call against Joey Vita, allowed Robert Foley to ram in a rebound for another PPG and a 3-1 Mars lead, which put momentum squarely in the Planets’ corner.
Blaney, who continues to lead Mars with 22 goals, took his turn in the spotlight during the second period, beating Radna with a pair of surgical wrist shots from the right wing, and the latter was a power play goal as well. Moving forward, things got chippy, and Hampton made things interesting on a 5-on-3 advantage, as Vita notched his fifth of the season to make it 5-2, but Heakins capped the game with a one-timer late in the third.
Each member of that terrific trio finds himself in the top ten in Class A in scoring, and forwards Bender, Blaney, and Heakins have registered a total of 48 goals–15 of which have come on special teams–and 110 points.
You know what the scary thing is? Only three of their collective goals have gone in the books as game-winners. So even though chemistry on that unit has to be at an all-time high this season, it’s not as though the state champs, even after all their key departures, use those guys as a crutch.
Furthermore, they did a solid job of gap control and supporting their defensemen–something the Planets said they wanted to improve upon when we spoke with them before this game. This figured to be a closer game than usual with leading scorer Luke Leya, fresh off a concussion, finally back in Hampton’s lineup. But Leya seldom got a quality scoring chance, and the only even-strength goal the Talbots managed required a superb individual effort by Wood with a defender harassing him all the way to the net.
With two of the three least scored-upon teams in the classification on the ice, this was supposed to be a struggle between the blue lines. But Mars’ top three forwards seized firm control of this game.
The Planets aren’t out of the woods–nor the “Wood”s–yet. Hampton, regardless of this outcome, can still replicate last year’s surprising run to the new Igloo, and Mars has a big matchup with QV on Feb. 21. Besides Westmont Hilltop, the Quakers are the only other team in Class A to play Mars particularly tough.
But as long as the Terrific Trio is healthy, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to knock the realigned Planets out of orbit.
Click here to check out a replay of Tuesday’s Penguins Cup Final rematch, courtesy of the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
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