By Matt Popchock
Maybe Bethel Park could teach the Penguins' power play a thing or two about consistency and execution.
"After the second period, we talked about how they were 4-for-6 the night before, and we were close, but we missed some chances," head coach Jim McVay said with a smile afterward.
Oh well, they still have at least eight more chances to beat that.
The Post-Gazette's No. 4 team (No. 3 per MSA Sports) registered three power play goals in seven opportunities to defeat Mount Lebanon 4-2 in Class AAA Section 1 action at BladeRunners Ice Complex in Bethel Park Thursday night, extending its winning streak to five games. That run is also part of a six-game unbeaten streak that began with a last-second 2-2 tie against the arch-rival Blue Devils (4-7-1) at Mount Lebanon Ice Arena on Dec. 6.
Entering Thursday, the Black Hawks (7-3-2) had only scored seven goals on the man-advantage this season, which put them in the bottom five in the classification, but the hosts finally enjoyed the breakthrough special teams effort they so desired against a notoriously stubborn defense that was ranked among the top five in the classification.
As a result, Bethel Park moved past McDowell for the number four spot and last available first-round bye in the Penguins Cup Playoff standings, while Mount Lebanon sits precariously in the 12th and final playoff spot, leading Norwin by point percentage.
Lebo drew first blood from Chris Ford's tip-in of a slap pass from Chris Meriney through the legs of JV call-up Austin McGinty 2:07 into the first period. That was perhaps its biggest bright spot of the night, as it ended a three-game shutout streak by the Hawks after 149 minutes, 26 seconds of scoreless hockey.
McGinty settled down and, with a 15-save effort, quietly picked up his fifth win since an injury to Dillon Ondrako bumped him up on the depth chart in late November. Meanwhile, it didn't take long for Bethel to counter on the PP and set the tone for the rest of the night.
With Hoeft in the box for interference Jacob Ford cranked a shot from center point that eluded sophomore netminder Clay Wyda to tie the game four minutes later. Officials later determined the puck had been redirected by Michael Shipley, a PIHL December Player of the Month and, like Ford, another converted defenseman, for his third goal of the year.
"Lebo might be one of the best defensive teams of the past ten years," McVay added. "Guys like Will Hoeft, who might be the best defenseman in the league, are always tough to get around because he's so big. When you score [on the power play], it's usually going to make the other team more disciplined."
The Black Hawks effectively frustrated Hoeft Thursday night, eventually forcing the big senior defenseman to take a season-high four minor penalties.
His counterpart Shipley was all over the ice, as Bethel Park continued its own strong defensive play of late by outworking the Blue Devils for loose pucks in the offensive zone, finishing their checks, and pinching to help Bethel's forwards dominate offensive zone time.
The pressure on Wyda mounted, and his mates buckled under it 1:22 into the second period, when the Hawks took the lead for good. Newcomer Austin Jameyson went undetected through a crowd in front of the net, and he fired home a puck from the bottom of the right wing circle for his first varsity goal of the campaign.
Wyda, who dropped his fourth decision in five appearances despite keeping Lebo in it with 30 saves, remained under siege for the rest of the period with the Blue Devils unable to stay out of trouble. Junior forward and team scoring leader Dan Kucerovy netted the game-winning power play goal, his 14th tally of the season, by patiently tucking a wrist shot inside the near post with 11:51 left to make it 3-1 Bethel Park.
"We were moving the puck real well and getting a lot of shots on net," said Kucerovy, who also assisted on the other two power play markers. "Not all of them went in, but I thought we worked really well."
Mount Lebanon countered a mere 1:18 later on a breakaway goal by Meriney, the third of the season for the senior forward, and it looked like the Blue Devils had put momentum in their corner when they killed off a two-man advantage that featured impressive puck movement by the Hawks.
However, their defense still would not allow Lebo to mount many serious scoring threats in the third period, and Zach Volzer effectively clinched the win on another Bethel Park power play with just under six minutes left in regulation.
Volzer, who had spent much of his team's power play time--and much of the game--camped out in the corner to the right of Wyda, skated out in front and the puck found his tape. He wasted little time burying his sixth goal and third special teams tally of the year from close range for the final margin of victory.
"I think [Dan Kucerovy] and I have been playing really well together...he went from the net and took the shot, and I got the rebound. It was all teamwork," the junior forward said.
Bethel Park will put that teamwork to a non-section test at Ice Connection of Pittsburgh against Butler Monday night, while Mount Lebanon, which has gone winless in seven against Bethel since the '08 Outdoor Charity Classic, will get a week off from PIHL play before hosting another heated rival, Upper St. Clair, in a Section 1 contest Jan. 24.
BY THE WAY:
*You might say McGinty has been the Brent Johnson of Bethel Park. Although he did not begin the season in a number-one role, he leads all Class AAA goaltenders in GAA (1.39) and save percentage (.933), having allowed just 11 goals in 357 minutes.
*Since being held off the scoresheet in the PIHL Winter Classic, Kucerovy has registered five goals and 11 points in three games, and has scored a power play goal in each of those three. His 24 points unofficially put him fifth on the Class AAA scoring leaderboard entering this week.
*Ford has scored half of his team-best ten goals for Mount Lebanon during his ongoing four-game goal streak.
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