By Matt Popchock
The Penguins Cup Playoffs commence in little more than a month, and on Thursday night the Mount Lebanon Ice Arena will play host to a pair of PIHL games with significant postseason implications.
At 7:10 Mount Lebanon (12-4-1) takes on Norwin (9-6-2), as the Knights look to break a three-game losing streak. They currently hold the No. 7 spot in the Class AAA overall standings, and they would face state champion Upper St. Clair if the playoffs began tonight.
The Blue Devils are tied with Peters Township for the fourth and final first-round bye in Class AAA. They saw a 3-1 lead dissipate into a 4-3 loss to visiting AAA-Sec. 2 rival North Allegheny last week. The Tigers have swept Mount Lebanon, which not only needs a win to tie them for the section lead, but needs to surpass N.A. outright in order to take the title.
At 9:10 Bishop Canevin (13-2-1) looks to start a new winning streak and also extend its unbeaten string to ten games when the Pennsylvania Cup champions face off against AA-Sec. 2 rival Chartiers Valley. A win by the Crusaders would give them the number one Penguins Cup Playoff seed, putting them one point ahead of West Allegheny heading into their meeting next week.
The Colts hold the No. 3 spot in the overall standings, and they probably need a win tonight in order to stay within striking distance of Canevin for the section title.
All four teams skating at Mount Lebanon Ice Arena will be without key players. Sophomore sensation Randy Unger will be absent from Canevin's lineup due to a concussion, and forward Anthony Franks, a key member of Char' Valley's supporting cast, is out for undisclosed reasons.
Unger scored the game-winning goal in the last meeting between these schools, a wild 8-7 overtime victory by the Crusaders Dec. 8.
Meanwhile, Norwin forward Dan Merz, one of the most prolific scorers in Triple-A this season with 20 goals and 41 points, has been suspended indefinitely. That's a blow for the reeling Knights, who have slipped to third in Section 4; however, Lebo is also without a key player. Winger Jimmy Phillips, one of its most consistent players, is out of town on a college visit.
The Class AA contest has an interesting plot twist, as Chartiers Valley captain Justin Sabilla has a chance to further distance himself from Bishop Canevin co-captain Matt Walsh in the scoring race.
Sabilla is on a historic pace. He leads all "pure" classifications in the PIHL with 45 goals and 59 points, including six game-winning tallies, five on the power play, and four shorthanded. He scored four times the last time he faced Canevin.
Walsh leads Canevin with 25 goals and 49 points, ranking second in the classification. He also recorded a hat trick in that December contest, so perhaps it's no wonder these two teams are currently the two highest-scoring ones in Double-A.
Mount Lebanon has also picked up its own offensive game this year, and currently sits fourth in Class AAA in total offense. The Blue Devils also boast the third-best power play in the classification, which puts pressure on Norwin to play better five-on-five and keep its collective nose clean. The Knights are, unofficially, the most penalized team in Class AAA.
Check back here for updates on both games throughout the night...
7:10 - The kiddies are finally off the ice, which they're midway through cutting at the Mount Lebanon Ice Arena. The Blue Devils and Knights should be taking the ice in about five minutes for their warm-up skate.
7:45 - End of 1st period. 1-0 Mount Lebanon, as Jason Hartman's 14th goal is the difference-maker. Shots 15-3 in favor of Lebo. Sharp period by backup goalie Ryan Boccabella.
8:05 - Ice cut. Still 1-0 Blue Devils, who continue to stymie Norwin's offense while killing off two penalties late in the 2nd. Norwin picking up the intensity, out-shooting Lebo 8-5 in the period, and hitting harder, as Boccabella continues to weather the storm. Norwin needs to simplify its offensive game, whereas Lebo can control this game if it continues its unrelenting forecheck.
8:20 - About to drop puck on the 3rd. The more this game stays 1-0, the more it probably benefits Norwin...
9:00 - An early goal by Tommy Horn and a 4-on-3 tally by Trevor Nelson off a one-timer propel Lebo to a 3-0 win. Blue Devils tied with N.A. in AAA-Sec. 2. Canevin and Char' Valley warming up...
9:35 - Wow...between the crowd and the tempo on the ice, this one feels like a playoff game. Walsh scores early for Canevin, Evgeny Koptsov answers on a Colts power play, but Blaine Adams gets a softie late in the 1st. Crusaders on the PK, but lead 2-1 to begin the 2nd.
10:05 - Justin Sabilla has re-entered beast mode as they cut the ice at the M-T-L. 4-2 Chartiers Valley after two, and the highlight of the period was a pair of goals by Sabilla, including a partial breakaway on backup goalie Ryan Tucker. (Regular netminder Nikita Meskin was a late scratch with strep throat.) He now has 47, which leads all the major classifications of the PIHL. A truly fun player to watch.
Canevin coach Kevin Zielmanski said, with Unger out, he didn't want this game to turn into a track meet like last time. Looks like the Crusaders might not have a choice anymore. They need to keep pace with Chartiers Valley at both ends, and find a way to get one by Noah Stevenson, who has risen to the challenge in goal thus far. On a late PK he was Char' Valley's best player.
11:05 - Walsh cut the deficit to 4-3 with his second of the night on a beautiful redirection, but Sabilla capped the hat trick with a shortie. Char' Valley wins 5-3. Neither team changes positioning, but the Colts have won four straight, and now trail Canevin by three points for the section lead. Tough period for Canevin, as Austin Large goes down with a nasty knee injury, and defenseman Matt Bilski was shaken up late.
Check the "Mr. High School Sports" blog for continuing PIHL and Penguins Cup Playoff coverage.
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