The PIHL season begins Monday, and there are some changes to the league but a lot will remain the same.
North Allegheny, Baldwin, Indiana and Neshannock won championships last season, but only two remain in the same classification: North Allegheny and Neshannock. Indiana and Baldwin move up a classification, meaning Class AA and A will crown new champions when the long journey comes to its culmination.
North Allegheny has won the past two contested Class AAA Penguins Cup Championships. A year ago, the Tigers were the fourth seed in the Penguins Cup Playoffs after going 13-5-1 in the regular season before defeating Mt. Lebanon, the field’s seventh seed, in the championship, 4-1.
Baldwin, which won all but one of its 18 regular-season contests a year ago and shut out Franklin Regional in the Class AA title game, 2-0, is joining the largest classification.
The field adds Baldwin but drops Butler, which went 1-19 last season. The Golden Tornado was the only team to not win at least six games.
North Allegheny coach Mike Bagnato expects a group of about seven or eight returners to make big impacts and said he thinks that have a good opportunity to contend for a third-straight title.
“This will be difficult with Mt. Lebanon still strong. Baldwin is the defending champs from AA and has a very good goaltender,” Bagnato said. “Pine-Richland looks good again and never count out Peters.”
The classification adds Butler and Indiana, last year’s Class A champion. The classification lost Moon, Hampton and Plum, all of which dropped to Class A.
Last season, Montour, Baldwin, Armstrong and Hempfield won division titles before Baldwin bested Franklin Regional, the seventh seed in the bracket, in the Penguins Cup Finals. The Panthers defeated Hempfield and Montour in the postseason.
Latrobe returns multiple key contributors, and division champion Montour graduated more than that, including standouts Anthony Migliozzi and Michael Felsing. Armstrong and Franklin Regional figure to be contenders as well.
“We have a lot of guys returning this year and look to build from our second half we had last year,” Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “We have two senior goalies, and Vinny Amatucci is returning.”
Werner said the Icecats bring back their defensemen and are looking for a group of forwards to make big impacts.
Class A fields four divisions with four teams plus Wheeling Catholic and Wheeling Park in the Wheeling Division. That makes for an 18-team classification.
Indiana, before winning the class, went unbeaten in the Southeast while Greensburg Salem separated itself from Norwin and Westmont Hilltop. Kiski and Freeport had 30 points each at the top of the Northeast Division while North Catholic was also well above .500 with 22 points in 18 games. Then, in the Northwest Division, McDowell won it with 13 points and a 6-11 record.
The Northwest Division remains the same, while the Northeast will be made up of newcomers, Hampton and Plum, as well as mainstays Freeport and Fox Chapel in the classification. Kiski Area, Greensburg Salem, Norwin and Westmont Hilltop make up the Southeast Division. Moon, which drops down like Plum and Hampton, will compete in a tough division with North Catholic, Chartiers Valley and North Hills.
Chartiers Valley, last year’s runner up to Indiana, lost one of the league’s best goalies in Logan Marnik to graduation, as well as some other key pieces. The Colts boast a big roster with nine seniors and are led by Greg Kraemer, whose 40 points led the Colts last year.
Freeport and Kiski Area also made the semifinals last season and hope to contend again in 2021-22. Plum won a Class AA championship not too long ago. North Hills also returns the bulk of its impact pieces from a season ago.
The sometimes difficult to predict open division, built mostly of co-op teams, could turn that way again this season with the exit of some solid groups of seniors.
Defending champion Neshannock graduates Tino Multari, who had 47 points (30 goals) last season. They also will be without second-leading scorer Hunter Harris. Key scorers Tommy Malvar and Giovanni Valentine return for the Lancers. Neshannock also returns its No. 1 goalie, Riley Mastowski.