By Matt Popchock
And then there were four.
Kittanning (11-1-0) was scratched off the short list of still-unbeaten PIHL schools Monday night when a slap shot from converted forward Luke Leya beat goaltender Cameron Langham with exactly two minutes left in sudden-death overtime to give host Hampton (9-2-0) an emotional 5-4 non-section win at Ice Connection of Pittsburgh in Valencia.
"It's definitely a signature win for us. We've had this game circled since last year," said head coach Brad Lloyd, recalling back-to-back blowout losses to the Wildcats early in the '09-'10 campaign.
"Everybody works together on this team...and I knew if we kept working, the game would be ours," Leya said of Hampton's effort. "We just wanted to keep shooting, and pucks were falling our way.
"We feel we can take anybody in Single-A right now."
The force was indeed with Leya, who scored another difficult goal to tie the game late in the second period. Last season he played on the back end as a freshman, but this season he leads Hampton--and most of Class A--with 16 goals in only nine outings.
It's one of a number of right buttons the new coach seems to have pushed with the Talbots, who rebounded in a big way from a shutout loss to Serra Catholic right before the holiday break that snapped an eight-game winning streak. Hampton maintained its comfy ten-point cushion on Knoch, which beat Section 1 doormat Deer Lakes earlier at Ice Connection, while the Wildcats saw their lead in Section 4 trimmed to four points with Westmont Hilltop's win over Freeport.
Kittanning entered the second half of the regular season as the consensus No. 2 team in Class A, with Hampton the consensus No. 5, and the Wildcats and Talbots also sit second and fifth, respectively, in the overall standings after Monday's dramatic meeting.
Perhaps its turning point was the first period, in spite of the fact it ended scoreless. The game looked like it might be far more one-sided than the aforementioned rankings might indicate, as Kittanning peppered Hampton senior goaltender Sam Wilson with 12 shots to a scattered four by the Talbots. But Wilson, who won the battle of the iron men with 26 saves, turned aside every one, including a point-blank robbery of Troy Schall on a one-timer.
"They're one of the best teams in the league for a reason, and we were probably a little overwhelmed the first seven or eight minutes before we settled down," Lloyd said. "Without Sam there, it's definitely a different game."
Frustration by the Wildcats led to penalty trouble at the end of the frame, and matters were made worse when Schall was also sent off, giving the Talbots a two-man advantage to begin the second. Langham, who made 20 saves in the loss and, like his counterpart, has played every minute this year, was beaten for the game's first goal when Zach Homitz provided a nice screen for Ian Wood, who found the net on a wrist shot right down the middle 39 seconds into the period.
That was the only power play tally Kittanning would concede, and it even caught a break when a second goal by Wood moments later was disallowed due to a distinct kicking motion deemed by officials. Nevertheless, the Talbots got it back with 11:57 left when Joseph Vita streaked into the right wing circle and fired a wrist shot into the far corner for his ninth goal of the year, and suddenly one of two perfect teams in Class A was in trouble.
However, the Talbots found out in due time why Kittanning possesses the number one offense in the classification. Schall, the speedy senior forward and team captain, got his team on the board with 10:35 remaining on a turnaround wrist shot down low that was set up by his quick feet behind the net. Schall remains one of four Kittanning forwards among the top ten scorers in the classification, and two others, Jordan Ford and Heinz Koster, hooked up just over two minutes later.
The duo, like their teammates, had been moving the puck in the offensive zone like good college players, let alone good high school players. With a pretty pass Koster found Ford between the circles, and Ford waited for Wilson to go down before notching his 13th goal of the season to make it 2-2. The stars continued shining when Schall smashed in a rebound on a power play for his second of the night and team-leading 19th of the campaign, and just like that, Kittanning had taken the lead with 8:16 to go.
The Wildcats had obviously gotten their act together, but Leya and his Hampton teammates refused to fall apart. With 1:49 on the clock he entered Kittanning ice, skated wide to his right, and snapped a rising shot past a defender than bounced off Langham and settled in the back of the net for a 3-3 deadlock heading into the ice cut.
"We needed to get a lot of shots on [Langham] because that team only gives up an average of 15 a game," Leya pointed out. "He's not used to seeing so many, so I just fired a puck from the top of the circle, and he wasn't ready for it."
The third period saw both squads kill penalties early on before Wood stunned all in attendance with his second tally of the night. What some fans later argued was icing was waved off, and Wood took the loose puck near the goal line. Harassed by a Kittanning defender all the way, he somehow backhanded it behind Langham from a bad angle to give the Talbots a 4-3 advantage with less than seven minutes left in regulation.
This seemed to light fire to a powder keg, as multiple small-scale fights broke out during the remainder of the period, and the penalty minutes piled up for both teams, with spectators and players alike rebutting the calls. Schall received a ten-minute misconduct while picking up a third minor penalty, but Ford avenged him with 3:58 left, shoveling the puck past Wilson for a game-tying shorthanded goal before crashing into the net and the netminder. Kittanning, though, was unable to convert on its own power play opportunity when Wood was sent off for boarding in the final two minutes of the third.
Hampton went on what proved to be the most important man-advantage of the game when the Wildcats were caught with too many men on the ice 1:12 into the five-minute OT. The Talbots caught another break when Ian Cole was assessed a five-minute game misconduct, giving them their second 5-on-3 power play of the night. Once again, they would not waste the golden opportunity, as Leya's shot from center point eluded traffic and Langham's glove for an upset victory in one of the most well-played Class A contests of the season.
"The first thing I did when I got in [the locker room] was remind everyone that all we've done is earn two points, which is what we set out to accomplish. We need to to put our heads down and keep trudging forward," Lloyd added, as his team now gets ready for another tough non-section contest against Quaker Valley.
That game takes place at Airport Ice Arena next Monday, while Kittanning tries to get back on track when it hosts Deer Lakes at the Belmont Complex Jan. 13.
BY THE WAY:
*Per USA Hockey rules, Cole's game misconduct constitutes a one-game suspension. PIHL rules call for him to be suspended an additional game because the offense occurred after the midway point of the game, according to league representative Bob Sebastian.
*Schall, who has erupted for seven goals in his last three games, has taken over the Class A scoring lead (19 G + 19 A = 38 pts.) with his three-point performance. He leapfrogged Corey Schafer of Westmont Hilltop, whose lone goal and assist Monday gives him 37 points.
*Leya's 16 goals tied him for fourth in Class A with Koster, Ed Lally of Sewickley Academy, and Tyler Speis of Serra Catholic (who scored against Hampton in their recent meeting). The game-winner by Leya was his team-leading fifth power play goal, which ties him with three others for second in Class A in that category.
Click here to relive any or all of the action from last night's game, thanks to my friends at the PIHL Network and Rubino Productions.
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