Freeport, Kittanning renew burgeoning hockey rivalry
It may not be Penguins versus Flyers, but there is a rivalry-like element to Freeport-Kittanning hockey games.
The local matchup is built on mutual respect.
“It's two teams in close proximity, so it kind of becomes a rivalry,” Freeport coach Dave Hepler said. “It's more of a fan thing than for the players.”
All of those pleasantries will be put on hold for at least one night, when No. 3 seed Freeport (16-5-1) takes on No. 6 Kittanning (13-8-1) in the PIHL Penguins Cup Class A quarterfinals Thursday night at the Belmont Complex.
“Almost every kid has played on amateur teams with those guys. Probably six or seven of our guys have played with the same number of kids over there,” Kittanning coach Jamie King said. “You want to win no matter who you play.”
The Section 3 foes skated to a 1-1 tie in November before Freeport got the best of the Wildcats on Feb. 14, 5-3.
“I guess the biggest deal will probably be that we're the home team,” Hepler said. “We get to make the last line change.”
That change could help Freeport obtain the matchups it's looking for. Hoping to exploit those matchups will be a host of 30-plus-point scorers for Freeport. Junior forward Cole Hepler leads the team in points with 38 (22 goals, 16 assists) in only 18 games. He missed the early part of the season due to injury.
Senior forward Greg Newman has 12 goals and 23 assists, and freshman forward Michael Frazetta has 17 goals and 13 assists.
But topping Kittanning will have to be as much about shutting down the high-scoring pair of Hunter Grafton and Christian Miller. Heading up that task is senior defenseman John Bird, who routinely faces the opposing team's top line.
“They're definitely a solid line. (Grafton and Miller) are both very talented. I've played against them for years,” Bird said. “It's going to be a huge part of the game.”
Though a solid defenseman, Bird is no stranger to putting up points. He's scored three goals and 12 assists through 20 games.
“I'm just trying to put pucks on net and maybe get someone else to put home a rebound,” Bird said.
Kittanning played some tough games down the final stretch of the regular season. The team hopes that helps its situation, even though Belmont also is its home ice.
“This year, we've had one of the hardest schedules,” King said. “We've kind of been in playoff mode. We're hoping that carries over.”
Another thing King hopes carries over is the 1-2 punch delivered by Grafton and Miller. Miller led Class A with 82 points, including 45 goals. Grafton is not far behind with 81 points (38 goals, 43 assists).
“We know that we have to base our performance off another. It's been that way all year,” Grafton said. “I think I'm lucky to have him on my line. I wouldn't pick another player to have on my line.”
While Grafton and Miller have been filling up nets, the job of keeping them out has fallen on senior Cam Langham.
“We definitely know if there's a good opportunity for the other team, he's going to stop it and turn the play up-ice for us,” Grafton said.
Langham has a 12-5-1 record, with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
“We just have to pay solid and play smart,” King said. “It's understanding it's not just the play in the third (period), but one or two plays in the first period could make the difference.”
Dave Yohe is a freelance writer.