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Seasoned Franklin Regional hockey team ready for final test

| Sunday, March 19, 2017, 5:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Franklin Regional's Olda Virag beats Thomas Jefferson goaltender Mitchel Chontos in the PIHL Class A Penguins Cup semifinals March 13, 2017, at RMU Island Sports Center.

A strong belief in its system and personnel carried Franklin Regional's hockey team to its first PIHL Penguins Cup Class A title last year.

The Panthers relied heavily on that formula to get back to UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex to defend their title. Franklin Regional rallied from a 4-3 deficit late in last Monday's semifinal to post a 6-4 win over Thomas Jefferson.

The triumph sent the team back to the championship game for the second year in a row.

The Panthers play Indiana at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Cranberry.

“It's a pretty awesome feeling to get back,” Franklin Regional's Nick Carretta said. “Everyone was bringing us their best game. We had to bring our best, too. We know we're not going to get anything less in the championship.”

The Panthers (19-1-0) cruised through the regular season until Bishop McCort handed them a 5-1 loss in the finale. Nevertheless, Franklin Regional rebounded for a 6-0 win over Westmont Hilltop in the quarterfinals.

The team appeared headed to another easy win against the Jaguars (14-7-0). Carretta scored the first of his two goals 53 seconds into the game, and the Panthers went up 3-0 halfway through the second period on a pair of Olda Virag goals.

However, Thomas Jefferson stormed back to tie the score with three goals in a 3:56 span late in the period. The Jaguars pulled ahead when Matt Krieger slipped through on a breakaway and scored with 8:46 left in regulation.

“It was frustrating because we were dominating a lot of the play,” Virag said. “When a team scores, there's nothing you can do but keep pushing and keep pushing. As soon as you give up, it's all over.

“We were trying to keep our heads up. As soon as you put your head down, everything goes downhill, and it's not good for the team. We were trying to keep our spirits high. We were almost certain we could get a chance that we'd capitalize on.”

Franklin Regional's trust in its system paid off when Virag scored his third goal with 3:15 remaining to tie the game.

“It was a good night for me. The pucks were bouncing my way. We were getting a lot of good chances,” Virag said. “The third goal was unbelievable. The puck just came out to me, and I shot it and hoped for the best and everything went well.”

The Panthers went back to work, and Carretta cashed in for his second goal with 1:20 remaining.

“The puck just bounced out to me,” he said. “I saw the goalie was looking the other way, and I had the whole net open. I wasn't sure if it went in, but it did.

“As soon as Olda put it in to tie the game, the crowd was silenced and we had the momentum. We figured we'd have a big push coming, and we did. We were just sticking to our systems and believing what our coaches were telling us, and we knew the goals would come.”

Jamie Mauro added an empty-net goal to seal the victory. That gave the squad's top line of Carretta, Virag and Mauro 13 points on the night. Those three accounted for all of the team's goals.

“We had a couple just miss the net and a couple bounces that didn't go our way early on, but I just kept going back with them. I knew they'd find the back of the net,” Franklin Regional coach Brian Kurtz said.

“That was not the way we envisioned it, for sure — especially getting a 3-0 lead and letting it slip on a couple fluky, bad goals. There was no panic, and the guys stepped up and we kept playing our game. We knew we were getting chances and quality opportunities. It was just a matter of being patient, and the puck would eventually find its way to the back of the net. It happened a little later than I wanted it, but ultimately, the result was where I wanted it to be.”

The squad hopes to strengthen its defensive effort against Indiana. The Panthers have allowed just 21 goals all year, but eight have come in two of the last three games.

“We know we have to play a better game. We have to play a better defensive game in front of Danny (Soltesz),” Kurtz said. “We've prided ourselves all year with our defense. As long as we play as a unit defensively and get back to playing our game, I think we have a good opportunity. Our forwards are skilled and fast, but we have to play in our own end first.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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