By Matt Popchock
Coaches always preach the concept of "playing to the whistle" to their players. On the Monday before Valentine's Day Fox Chapel played to the whistle, but its opponent played a little closer.
A tough-angle goal by State College sophomore forward Stefan Horgas, his second tally of the night, with just over two seconds left in regulation gave the Little Lions (7-6-2) a stunning 3-2 upset win over the Foxes (16-1-0) in non-section play at the Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington.
Consensus Class AAA No. 1 Fox Chapel left Open Class Wheeling Central Catholic behind as the only remaining undefeated team in the PIHL, as the Lions won for the fourth time in five tries to take an outright lead over Norwin in Section 4 and pull ahead of McDowell for the No. 8 spot in the Penguins Cup Playoff standings.
Fifty-six seconds prior to Horgas' heroics, the Foxes finally got a much sought-after power play goal from another sophomore forward, Brian Holvanec, to tie the game when Sam Englehart was sent off for tripping. With Fannie pulled by head coach Cory Rome to gain a 6-on-4 advantage, Holvanec blasted a one-timer from the right circle between the legs of State College goaltender Joe Abruzzo engineered by a faceoff win.
Abruzzo was otherwise brilliant all night, turning aside 28 shots for his sixth win of the season and outclassing one of the most consistent goalies in the league. No one seemed happier than he that Horgas denied the Foxes a shot in overtime.
"I couldn't believe it. It was the most relieved I've ever been," the senior netminder said with a smile. "The first thing I thought about [when Holvanec scored] was, we can still pull this off, and even a tie is better than nothing.
"But then Stefan scored."
For his head coach, first-year bench boss Brett Wilson, it was a very timely signature victory heading into State College's biggest game of an up-and-down year, a home contest against Norwin three days later.
"When they tied it, I looked down my bench, and not one of my guys dropped their head. That's a big improvement from the beginning of the year," Wilson said. "They knew they weren't done yet, and they just went out and played their game."
Indeed, there was no head-hanging by the boys in burgundy and gray, but there was probably a lot of tongue-dragging as they headed off for the ice cut, even though State College ended the second period with a 2-1 edge.
Daniel Moscone had beaten Fannie on a one-timer from All-Star defenseman Ben Wheeler set up behind the net for his team-leading 17th goal of the year with 1:40 left, but the Foxes were subsequently awarded a power play and had multiple cracks at Abruzzo during a mad scramble in front of his crease in the final minute. Somehow, with the help of staunch defensive support, Abruzzo survived the second-most productive offense in Class AAA for the time being.
"I was getting screened, and they hit a couple posts...I couldn't believe it. A win's a win, but I definitely got some lucky bounces tonight," he said of Fox Chapel's special teams, which entered the week as the highest-scoring unit in the classification with 29 goals in odd-man situations.
"Last time, against Mount Lebanon, we feel we didn't come out strong enough," Wilson added, "so we wanted to get to our game sooner. We may not have the depth that some of these other teams have, but we find that playing a team game, a really physical game, helps us out."
Fox Chapel controlled the tempo for much of the first period, but thanks to the team-oriented brand of defense Wilson talked about, which included a smart, gritty effort from Wheeler, the Foxes had nothing to show for it until Christian Wirginis got them on the board with a slap shot between the circles with 2:10 to go.
State College generated significant pressure around the Fox Chapel net for the first time early in the second, and with little more than two minutes expired Horgas evened things up by jamming home a puck along the goal line that Fannie failed to hold long enough for a faceoff.
That hard-nosed endeavor by Horgas was a prelude to the real showstopper. With the score tied 2-2, Fox Chapel appeared content to force a sudden-death period and tried to nonchalantly clear its zone, but Horgas and Wheeler forced a last-second turnover along the boards. Hounded by a Fox Chapel defender on his way to the net, Horgas amazingly lifted a wrist shot from the bottom of the right circle that got behind Fannie on the far side to decide the game.
"I got a great pass, and I had an angle, so I just shot," he said.
It's hard to imagine Horgas scoring one bigger than his 12th of the year, which allowed the Lions to play the role of giant-killer.
"It's a great confidence booster. It's about time we got some breaks; we played a good game tonight, and it was a good team effort."
"I told them I'm proud of them," Wilson said, "because that's the best three-period effort we've put together all year."
BY THE WAY:
*State College is now 4-3-1 away from home in PIHL play this season, not including the Winter Classic. Fox Chapel had won nine straight at Valley Sports Complex since an 8-1 loss to Upper St. Clair Mar. 1, 2010.
*Horgas enjoyed his fourth multiple-goal game of the season, and his first in nearly two months. He scored twice (and added two assists) in a victory over Section 4 rival Hempfield Dec. 9, one of which was his only other game-winning goal.
*Fox Chapel All-Star Dan Humes, who was, at the time, Class AAA's unofficial scoring leader, assisted on Holvanec's game-tying goal to extend his point streak to 16 games.
(Click here to relive any or all of the action from our Game of the Week, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.)
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