PIHL notebook: League set to crown Penguins Cup champs
By: Joe Sager
Sunday, March 18, 2018 | 7:15 PM
The race to a championship comes to an end this week for PIHL teams.
Three Penguins Cup winners and a Division 2 titlist will be determined Monday and Tuesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. On Monday, Moon and Burrell meet for the D2 title at 5:30 p.m. Bishop McCort and Meadville battle for the Class A championship at 8:30 p.m. On Tuesday, Quaker Valley and Armstrong play for the Class 2A title at 5:30 p.m., and Seneca Valley and Peters Township clash for the Class 3A title at 8:30 p.m.
Top-seeded Peters Township (16-4) goes for its second Penguins Cup title in a row and seventh overall. If the Indians become the first back-to-back winners at Class 3A since Bethel Park (2000-02), they'll have a chance to defend their state championship, as well.
“It's pretty special,” Peters Township's Mark Lehman said. “I wasn't part of the team last year. These guys looked like they had a great time last year, so I wanted to do anything I could to get them back there and repeat. It's great. I don't want to stop playing.”
Lehman scored late in the first period in the semifinal, and Peters Township made it stand up as it defeated North Allegheny for the second postseason in a row. The Indians have used four goaltenders this year, but Alex Wilbert got the win against NA. He was the surprise starter last year, too, during the team's championship run.
The Raiders (14-6) are seeking their first Penguins Cup championship. They ranked near the bottom of Class 3A with only 48 goals scored in the regular season, but they allowed the fewest (35). Logan Johnson is among the top goaltenders.
The teams split their regular-season matchups. Seneca Valley won the first 3-2 in a shootout, and Peters Township claimed the second 2-1 in OT.
“Peters has been a tough competitor all season,” Seneca Valley's Gio Sarachine said. “It'll come down to whatever team gets the lucky bounce. It's two good teams going at it, and that's what you like to see: the top two seeds going at it for the Cup.”
Can anyone stop red-hot Armstrong? The top-seeded River Hawks (18-3) racked up a classification-best 121 goals in the regular season and outscored their two playoff foes, 19-6. They had five players with at least 26 points (Zachary Kutch, Jace Rearic, Nick Benvenuti, Easton Hooks and Jacob Gross). One person not on that list — Gio Romeo — scored four goals in the semifinals.
“We're a fast team, and I think we can play faster,” Armstrong coach Lee Grafton said. “We have a bunch of great hockey players that can move the puck and shoot the puck. They are very talented offensively, but we can be a much better team than what we saw (in the semifinals).”
Quaker Valley's defense has been nearly perfect the past two games in upsets over Latrobe (1-0) and Pine-Richland (3-1). The Quakers (12-10) and goaltender Philip Gagne will be tasked with containing Armstrong's attack.
“Every guy needs to come out hard and play their hardest,” Gagne said. “I think we have a good chance to win if we all play our game.”
Injuries and absences caused Quaker Valley to limp into the postseason at 9-10. With nearly a full roster, the Quakers are clicking. They hope to claim their first Penguins Cup at the Class 2A level after winning five at Class A.
Meadville (nine titles) and Bishop McCort (six) bring a rich Penguins Cup championship history to this meeting, although both sides have been in a long drought. The Crimson Crushers last won in 2005, and Meadville's last Penguins Cup came in '03 in Class 3A. The program won the D2 title last year, though.
Top-seeded Bishop McCort (22-0) has been atop Class A all season. International students Aliaksei Kosterau, Matsvei Kurylovich and Alexander Komov power a productive and deep offensive attack.
Second-seeded Meadville (19-3) packs some punch, too. Forward Nick Frantz leads the way, and goaltender Eddie Kaufman is one of the league's best.
After being upset in the Penguins Cup playoffs the past three years, Moon was decimated by graduation but was able to drop down to D2 and add some co-op players to field a team. The Tigers (19-1) found instant chemistry, especially on defense. They allowed a PIHL-low 27 goals during the regular season.
Burrell (15-5) features a contrasting style. The third-seeded Buccaneers scored a division-best 101 goals and have two of the top point leaders in Tyler Stewart (67) and Dylan Zelonka (41).
Joe Sager is a freelance writer.