By Matt Popchock
The number one offense in Class AAA began the week with 32 goals through its first five games, though based on the way Monday night's contest began, you'd never guess it belonged to Shaler.
Defending Penguins Cup champion Canon-McMillan erupted for four goals in the first five minutes, including a pair from offensive defenseman Alexander Baskakov, and hung on for a 5-3 non-section victory at BladeRunners Ice Complex in Harmarville over the host Titans, the very team the Big Macs dethroned back in March.
The Section 1 leaders remained perfect at 5-0-0 on the young season, while the Titans (3-1-2) held down second place in Section 3 and saw their five-game unbeaten streak end in the first meeting between these schools since Canon-McMillan's epic comeback in the 2010 Penguins Cup Semifinals at Mellon Arena.
Head coach Yuri Krivokhija once called fellow Russian Baskakov the best blue-liner in the league, and after his performance against mighty Shaler, that doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility.
Baskakov drove home a puck from team captain and scoring leader Brett Oldaker just 1:22 into the game to give Canon-Mac the early lead. A mere 44 seconds later forward Carmen Dalesandro, one of last season's playoff heroes, pulled up at the top of the right wing circle and wristed one up high over the shoulder of starting goaltender Ian Zacharias to make it 2-0. Just 1:47 after Dalesandro's goal, his third of the season, Artem Prus fired one from the high slot that skipped off Zacharias' glove and behind him for his third of the year to give Canon-Mac a stunning 3-0 lead and leave Titans coach Curt Hetz and his beleaguered goaltender wondering what had hit them.
Hetz pulled Zacharias in favor of backup goaltender Steve Defibaugh, marking his second straight appearance in net. Defibaugh went on to stop 18 of 19 shots in relief, but the bleeding did not cease right away. With the Big Macs on the power play Baskakov greeted him by slapping a shot through traffic for his second goal and fifth of the season with 10:12 still remaining in the first period for a four-goal cushion.
"If you have a chance, take the shot," Baskakov later said of his own decision-making and his team's fast start. "Quick passing and quick shooting, that was it."
"We talked about team speed before the game, and I thought we had a lot of it coming into this year," assistant coach Jeff Severyn added. "They jumped on every loose puck, which was exactly what we told them to do."
At one point Canon-McMillan was outshooting Shaler 10-3, but late in the period the Titans' vaunted forwards, who had been totally stymied by the Big Macs' skillful defense, finally found some open ice and started testing goaltender Ryan Palonis. Palonis made 23 saves on the night and kept the 4-0 score intact until the latter stages of the second period.
Shaler, whose eight power play goals were tied for most in Class AAA with Canon-Mac entering Monday, found itself on a much-needed man-advantage, and its hard work throughout the period finally paid off. Palonis made the initial stop on Josh Hetz but couldn't find the rebound, which came free to brother Jacob Hetz, who fired it into an open net with 6:05 left to cut the deficit to 4-1 at the intermission.
A three-goal mountain seemed tough to climb against the Big Macs, as their ten goals allowed through four games had made them one of the top scoring defenses in the PIHL. But as the third period began Shaler's shot total continued rising and the ice continued tilting against the visitors. Still, Palonis and his D-men hung tough, until a weird bounce victimized him and cut the lead in half.
It appeared that a centering pass was made from behind the Canon-McMillan net that was deflected and somehow squeezed through Palonis' legs just across the goal line, a play that seemed to catch the netminder off guard. Upon further review, it was determined that defenseman Dominic Deltondo was the last Shaler player to touch the puck, so he received credit for his first goal of the campaign, making it a 4-2 hockey game with 7:24 to go in regulation.
The Titans weren't done yet either. Following coincidental roughing minors to Jacob Hetz and Canon-McMillan's Zach McKown, Hetz redeemed himself by finishing off a one-timer from Conor Burke at the left hash to pull the Titans within one with still 1:38 remaining, his team-leading tenth goal of the season and second of the night.
Both teams used their timeouts, but despite the best-laid plans of Shaler it could not threaten again, and Oldaker shot a bouncing puck past a diving Michael Powell and into an empty net for his sixth goal of the year with 47 seconds left to secure the win.
The Titans must now put this one behind them and get ready for a big showdown with first-place Fox Chapel next Monday in a Section 3 battle at the Valley Sports Complex. Meanwhile, Canon-Mac will next play host to Butler in further non-section play that night at Ice-O-Plex.
BY THE WAY:
*Severyn served as interim head coach for this game in lieu of Krivokhija. Krivokhija had been suspended by the PIHL for submitting an illegal roster, according to a team source.
*Although Canon-McMillan was the most penalized team in Class AAA entering the week with 107 penalty minutes, this was, on paper, a more disciplined effort. The Big Macs only served eight PIM's to Shaler's 14.
*Since 2007 the Big Macs are now 3-2-1 against Shaler, including their 2010 Penguins Cup Semifinal meeting. Last year the only regular season meeting also ended 5-3 in Harmarville, that time in favor of the Titans on Dec. 7, 2009.
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.
Our next Game of the Week takes us back to the Airport Ice Arena in Moon Township, where the Montour Spartans will visit the West Allegheny Indians in a quest for the top spot in Class AA Section 2. For continuing coverage of the PIHL and Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!
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