North Allegheny tops Mt. Lebanon, celebrates back-to-back Penguins Cup titles

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021 | 12:01 AM


North Allegheny goalie Josh Bailey didn’t mince words Monday night. The second period, when he was peppered with 20 shots and the puck stayed trapped inside NA’s blue line, was bad.

“Terrible,” he said. “It was terrible.”

Yet, Bailey was very good.

Against a Mt. Lebanon attack determined to test him often, the senior turned away 33-of-34 shots, a championship performance that bought his teammates enough time to break out. North Allegheny scored three times in the third period including a go-ahead goal by Connor Chi to defeat Mt. Lebanon, 4-1, in the PIHL Class AAA final at RMU’s Island Sports Center.

The more Mt. Lebanon shot, the more aggressive Bailey got.

“I took more of the net away,” he said, “stepped out more and tried to save the first one, so they wouldn’t get any rebounds.”

It worked. NA was outshot 34-18 overall and 20-5 in the second period, yet won.

“Josh played an amazing game,” said Chi, a junior. “We wouldn’t have won without him. This game. The Seneca game. The Peters game. He stood on his head for all three (playoff) games. We owe it to Josh for those wins.”

But Chi also contributed greatly for the second game in a row.

Tied 1-1 with about nine minutes left, Chi used a net-front screen from teammate Luke Washabaugh and rifled the go-ahead shot past Mt. Lebanon goalie Austin Martin. Chi’s straight-away shot from beyond the circles was reminiscent of his overtime-winner in the semifinals.

“I just tried to rip it on net,” Chi said, “and see what happened.”

The championship remained a one-goal game until NA’s Austin Peterson scored with about three minutes left to take a 3-1 lead, and Trey Gallo added an empty netter with 63 seconds left.

Martin stopped 14-of-17 shots for Mt. Lebanon.

“They made the plays in crunch time to win,” Mt. Lebanon coach Jeremy Church said. “(North Allegheny has) arguable the best player in the league in Connor Chi, and you hold him in check until there are (nine) minutes left in the third period. But he doesn’t need a lot of chances.”

The title was North Allegheny’s second in three seasons, but that’s a little misleading since the pandemic cut short the 2020 PIHL playoffs. There may be a year missing on the Penguins Cup trophy, but the Tigers celebrated like back-to-back champions since they also won in 2019.

No team has won consecutive Class AAA titles since Bethel Park in 2000-02.

“I hope we won it for all (of last year’s) seniors,” NA coach Mike Bagnato said. “We had a great class last year. It was a shame that it ended or maybe we would be talking about a three-peat right now.”

This Penguins Cup was the fourth overall for NA, joining titles in 2019, ’13 and ’07. Mt. Lebanon was seeking its first since 2005, and almost shot its way to a championship.

“Heading into the third, we were leading 28-8 in shots,” Church said. “… We thought that we had them on the ropes, looking at their bench. We thought that our depth had really taken a toll the first two periods. Give credit to Coach Bagnato and NA. They made the adjustments between the second and third and found another gear.”

North Allegheny’s game plan was to dump and chase the puck behind Mt. Lebanon’s defense, a strategy that worked in the third period. NA outshot the Blue Devils, 10-6, and scored three times.

“Our big thing was getting the puck in deep,” Chi said. “The first (two) periods we weren’t really doing that, but in the third period, our coaches talked to us and got us going. We were dumping it more, getting pucks behind them, working harder, winning the battles.”

North Allegheny managed only three shots on goal in the first period, yet took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Nathan Spak with 13:20 left. Peterson assisted.

Mt. Lebanon outshot NA 8-3 in the first period, but the Blue Devils’ onslaught came in the second. Boosted by two North Allegheny penalties, Mt. Lebanon outshot NA 20-5 in the period and saw several good scoring chances turned away by Bailey.

In about a two-minute stretch, Bailey stopped a shot from a few feet in front of the net, denied a wraparound attempt and kicked away a backhand shot on the rush. But for the most part, NA’s defenders successfully pushed many of Mt. Lebanon’s second-period shots away from their goalie.

“I don’t think they got a lot of quality chances in front of our goal,” Bagnato said. “We were keeping them out to the perimeter, which is what we’re always trying to do. If we keep that puck outside, normally a better goalie — and Josh is in that category — is going to stop a lot of stuff that they can see.”

The only goal Bailey allowed came with about six minutes left in the second. Mt. Lebanon’s Liam Byrne threw a backhand toward the net and Sam Mitchell slapped the rebound past Bailey to force a 1-1 tie.

Otherwise, Bailey was perfect.

Bailey had a .892 save percentage in the regular season, a mark that has jumped to .966 in the playoffs. He has now allowed a total of four goals in three playoff games.

“Josh kept us in that game,” Bagnato said. “To (the Blue Devils’) credit, they were working their butts off. They were kind of outworking us there for a while.”

Mt. Lebanon drew three penalties in the first two periods but went 0-3 on the power play. Still, the puck seemed to circle Bailey for much of the second.

“We couldn’t get it out,” Bailey said. “There were a lot of shots, a lot of hard shots. They got one (goal) in the second but we fought through it. We came back in the third and we blasted them.”

Watch a replay of this game on Trib HSSN.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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