Westmont Hilltop knocks TJ out of PIHL playoffs
JOHNSTOWN — After two regular season losses to Westmont Hilltop, Thomas Jefferson probably thought it was due.
Or it could be that the Jaguars are just snake bitten.
Whatever the case, Thomas Jefferson (14-9) could not figure out a way to get past Westmont Hilltop (15-7-1). Defenseman Ian Campbell ripped a slapshot from the left point that wafted through traffic and somehow beat Jaguars goaltender Nick Ripepi at 4:51 of overtime to give the Hilltoppers a 4-3 victory in the PIHL Class A Penguins Cup semifinals at the Cambria County War Memorial.
“We played exactly the way we needed to being short and missing a few players,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Crousey said. “I thought we did exactly what I asked them to do, and we fell a little short. We still had chances to win and it just didn't go our way.”
Thomas Jefferson stumbled at the end of January with consecutive losses to Westmont Hilltop, Quaker Valley and Mars by a combined 16-5 score but had won four consecutive games heading into the playoffs. The Jaguars had leads of 1-0 and 3-2 but allowed the next two goals to the Hilltoppers both times.
But it was the second time that was most costly as Thomas Jefferson clung to a 3-2 lead throughout most of the third period and collapsed in defensively before Brian Yost scored off a faceoff in the Jaguars' zone at 12:20 to send the game to overtime.
Twice Thomas Jefferson forward Matt Bowers, who scored the team's second goal, had breakaway chances in overtime but was stuffed both times by goaltender Sebastian Ragno. The first was just 2:01 into the extra period and the next on his next shift with 6:46 left.
Both times Ragno, who made 32 saves, just got a glove on the wrist shots and turned away what would have been the game-winning goal for the Jaguars.
“I thought he made good shots, and the goalie just made better saves,” Crousey said. “In overtime, you get a shot on net and anything can happen and one got through our guy and that was it.”
Westmont Hilltop has now won its last five and will play either Mars or Quaker Valley in the semifinals Monday at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center at either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. If Freeport defeats Kittanning on Thursday, then Thomas Jefferson plays the top-seeded Quakers. A Kittanning win would earn the Wildcats a date with Quaker Valley and leave the Jaguars and Planets to vie for a spot in the PIHL Class A championship game, which will be played March 20 at the Consol Energy Center.
“They're both very, very good, and we'll take a night and enjoy this one. But in playoff hockey anything can happen,” Westmont Hilltop coach Art McQuillan said. “We're proud of our kids and the effort they put forth in a quality Penguins Cup playoff game.”
Westmont Hilltop was uncharacteristically careless with the puck in the first two periods as Hilltoppers players regularly failed to clear the defensive zone, executed blind drop passes in the neutral zone and didn't press the attack when they had a manpower advantage in the attacking third. Their careless play was most evident late in the second period when, trailing 3-2, they allowed Thomas Jefferson to maintain pressure on the net and throw several solid shots at Ragno well after the puck should have been moved out of the zone.
Perhaps the most egregious Westmont-Hilltop misplay came midway through the second period when a Hilltoppers player was carrying the puck into the Thomas Jefferson zone but inexplicably reached the blue line and dropped a pass to no one in the neutral zone. Jaguars sniper Brandon Mason picked up the loose puck and counterattacked into what became a 2-on-0 in the Westmont Hilltop zone, and he snapped in his 19th goal of the season at 10:12 to give the Jaguars a 3-2 lead they took into the ice cut.
“We got away from our game a little bit, and you have to give TJ credit because they have a lot of skilled forwards and they did a good job of puck possession.” McQuillan said. “We're used to dictating a little more of the flow in our defensive zone and they took us out of it, but we've been a third-period team all year and we've been riding a hot goaltender and that's not a bad thing in the playoffs.”