Franklin Regional hockey relishing underdog role

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Monday, March 11, 2019 | 6:27 PM


After years of being one of the top-seeded teams in the PIHL Penguins Cup playoffs, Franklin Regional is relishing its underdog role this postseason.

The Panthers (12-8) served noticed they are a force with a 2-1 upset win over Mars in the first round. It set up a semifinal encounter with Upper St. Clair (14-5).

“The win over Mars was amazing,” Franklin Regional senior goaltender Danny Soltesz said. “Probably more than half the team hadn’t experienced a playoff win because they are so young. So, just to show them what can happen in the playoffs is pretty huge, moving forward.”

Trent Lunden’s power-play goal allowed the Panthers to tie the Fightin’ Planets, 1-1, after the second. Olda Virag tallied the winning goal with 2 minutes, 2 seconds left. Soltesz stopped 37 of the 38 shots he saw to seal the upset win.

“Olda showed up on the scoreboard, but a lot of the younger guys and third-line guys really grinded it out and did things people don’t notice. Everyone really pitched in and did their part, which is what you need,” Soltesz said. “I think we were all playing for each other. Each and every person had each other’s back and was playing for each other. That was great to see.”

Franklin Regional, which claimed Penguins Cup Class A titles in 2016 and ‘17, lost in the first round to Armstrong, 8-2, in last year’s Class 2A playoffs. With a large number of graduating players, the Panthers had to count on young and inexperienced players to step into starting roles this year, especially on defense.

They responded well in their first postseason test.

“Before the game, some of the younger guys looked pretty nervous,” Soltesz said. “We tried to calm them down and make them relax. I remember when I younger, I was pretty nervous for the playoff games. Staying calm is key and I think they were able to do that.”

Upper St. Clair finished atop the Southeast Division standings with 30 points. Franklin Regional finished third with 24. Upper St. Clair posted a pair of wins over the Panthers already. It notched a 4-3 victory in a shootout in the season opener and grabbed a 7-6 triumph on Jan. 7. In that meeting, Upper St. Clair rallied for three goals in the third period to tie the game. Franklin Regional looks forward to a third meeting Wednesday at 9 p.m. at RMU Island Sports Center.

“I think we were looking forward to being the underdogs throughout the playoffs this year. We beat Mars, and we know Upper St. Clair got the best of us twice already,” Soltesz said. “We also know that we didn’t play to our full potential both times against them. We want to keep shocking some people.”

Upper St. Clair has one of Class 2A’s top offenses with 105 goals scored during the regular season. The team features three of the top six scorers within the classification in Devin Rohrich, Anthony Carone and Quinn Giacobbe. Rohrich led all Class 2A players with 51 points, and Carone was next with 50. Giacobbe added 41 points. They combined for three goals and six points in the team’s 6-2 win over Baldwin to open the playoffs.

“They have one main line that has a lot of points. We want to contain that one line,” Soltesz said. “We want to focus on making fewer mistakes than they do. Hopefully, the bounces go our way also.”

Virag led Franklin Regional in scoring during the regular season with 32 points. Lunden was next with 22 and Mathieu Sliva (21) and Kevin Cakanac (20) were right behind. The Panthers hope to get past Upper St. Clair to reach their third Penguins Cup championship game in four seasons.

“I am having a great time. This reminds me of my freshman and sophomore years going to the Penguins Cup,” Soltesz said. “I was talking to some of the other seniors about how nice it’d be to go out with another one this year.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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