By Matt Popchock
Hampton has demonstrated it was not a fluke in last season's Class A playoffs, but on Tuesday night the Talbots (9-1-1) want to prove their loss to Mars in the Penguins Cup Final was.
The Planets (10-1-0) will meet the Talbots at BladeRunners Warrendale for an 8:30 puck drop in the first PIHL meeting since they skated at CONSOL Energy Center ten months ago. Mars won the previous meeting, 5-0, to capture its third straight Penguins Cup, and it would later defeat Springfield for its second Pennsylvania Cup in a row.
That team has been the prohibitive favorite in Class A again in 2011-12, and it bounced back nicely from an upset by Westmont Hilltop by spanking South Fayette 8-2 at BladeRunners Bethel Park last Monday.
Meanwhile, Hampton sent a message by edging the Hilltoppers, 3-2, at the Cambria County War Memorial last Thursday. Playoff hero Sam Wilson has graduated, but new goaltender Cam Raidna has been terrific since moving from North Carolina in the off-season, and he made 31 saves against Westmont.
Raidna has posted a 1.71 GAA and .934 save percentage, the latter of which is tops in the classification among starting goalies. His counterpart, Mars netminder Alex Stepke, has picked up where older brother and erstwhile All-Star Tyler Stepke left off, leads Class A with a 1.67 GAA. The Talbots are the least scored-upon team in Class A, and Mars ranks third in goals allowed.
The Planets, as usual, have a lot of size and scoring ability throughout their lineup, led by junior hockey stars and linemates Nick Blaney and Austin Heakins, who have combined for 72 points. Heakins ranks fourth in Class A with 23 assists, and Blaney ranks third in the classification with 20 goals.
For Hampton, the status of Luke Leya, who leads the team in goals and has been recovering from a concussion, will be of paramount importance in this one. In the meantime, Zach Kosick, whose tenth goal was the game-winner against Westmont, has picked up the slack nicely with a team-high 23 points.
Check out this blog more on this game later, as these teams will battle for temporary possession of the No. 2 seed in the Class A bracket behind Quaker Valley.
Whenever someone scores a double hat trick in the PIHL, it usually happens in part because the opponent, quite frankly, isn't very good. However, Plum, despite a humbling 11-3 loss to Chartiers Valley at Mount Lebanon Ice Arena last Thursday, is still on pace to qualify for the Class AA Penguins Cup Playoffs, which makes Justin Sabilla's feat more impressive.
Sabilla, a multiple All-Star and Player of the Month honoree, notched six goals against the Mustangs, and needed less than three periods to erase a five-point deficit to Bishop Canevin co-captain Matt Walsh in the Class AA scoring race:
Sabilla is the Evgeni Malkin of the PIHL right now. He's got 40 goals in just 14 league games. Although there is definitely a gap between the haves and have-nots, Class AA is very competitive this year, and 40-goal campaigns are not common in the PIHL's "pure" classifications.
He leads the classification with 53 points to Walsh's 48, and he followed up his six-goal effort with a five-goal explosion at Mercyhurst Monday in a 9-4 blowout of Erie Cathedral Prep that allowed the Colts to move past the Ramblers into second place in AA-Sec. 2 and No. 3 overall.
How has Walsh responded? Just a couple hours after Sabilla's double HT, he scored a goal and an assist in Canevin's 8-4 win over North Hills at the Mount Lebanon Ice Arena, and his individual success has mirrored the success of his team quite nicely. Walsh has a six-game goal streak going into Thursday's meeting with Prep (more on that later), and the Crusaders have won eight in a row to take the No. 2 spot in Class AA.
As you saw in that video, the goaltender Sabilla victimized was Taylor Cestra, who was also an All-Star this season. One of several female players to skate in the PIHL, Cestra, who is also a catcher/shortstop on the softball team, has been the starter for all of Plum's six victories.
Her success is significant. The Tribune-Review recently did a story on the possible creation of an all-girls high school hockey league in western Pennsylvania, and a source close to the PIHL tells me commissioner Ed Sam is laying the groundwork, so it looks like this co-ed equivalent of the PIHL will become a reality.
I'm even more convinced there will be a "sister league," so to speak, now that Stephanie Lemieux, daughter of you-know-who, has officially enrolled at Oakland Catholic, joining her sister Lauren.
Stephanie transferred from world-renown hockey prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minnesota. A couple years ago, the network formerly known as FSN Pittsburgh did this story on her, which features a cameo appearance by one of Shattuck-St. Marys' most famous alumni (his sister Taylor plays there too):
Anyway, if she does end up getting involved with high school hockey around here on some level, it would be a perfect situation for the increasingly diverse PIHL to have a member of the Lemieux family help sell the existing league and/or the new one. Mick Lemieux, Stephanie's cousin, was an All-Star and member of Quaker Valley's first Penguins Cup championship club in 2006.
Exactly what kind of a rink might hockey stars of the future skate on?
The Beaver County Ice Arena is a popular municipal rink that is home to the Bobcats' varsity squad in the Open Class, not to mention Quigley's, Central Valley's, and Blackhawk's. But that facility has been hemorrhaging money, and its operators are said to be looking into a product called "synthetic ice."
What is synthetic ice? A local company that manufactures the product explains:
Personally I think it's an excellent training tool, especially when it comes to building leg strength, rehabbing lower-body injuries, or things of that nature. But unless you're using it as a last resort, like Beaver County, it's hard to beat the real thing.
Click here to learn more about synthetic ice...
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
for more features.