PIHL Penguins Cup playoffs preview: Defending champs face tough road
The road to Consol Energy Center begins Monday for PIHL teams when the puck drops on the Penguins Cup playoffs.
Defending champions North Allegheny (Class AAA), Latrobe (AA) and Quaker Valley (A) face difficult quests in their bids to return to Consol Energy Center to defend their titles March 17. The state championship games are slated for March 22 at Penn State's Pegula Ice Arena.
Bethel Park (17-3) edged Peters Township (16-4) for the top seed, but veteran coach Jim McVay knows the Black Hawks face a challenge in their quest for an eighth Penguins Cup title and first since 2012.
“More than any time in the last 15 years, I can't remember when it was more competitive,” McVay said. “There were five teams separated by a point. I honestly would not be stunned if any team won. Really, I think 10 of the 12 teams in the playoffs could win the whole thing.”
Bethel Park closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak and surrendered the fewest goals (39) in the PIHL.
“Everybody is 0-0 right now. Anything that happened in the season doesn't matter. It's a one-game season. If you don't treat it that way, it is only going to be one game,” McVay said. “We've lost to Peters and we've lost to the 10 and 11 seeds. It makes it exciting, in a way, because any team can beat any team. We have a bye, but any team we play can beat us.”
It's been a trying year for Bishop Canevin (20-2). The Crusaders overcame a number of key injuries and absences to pull away with the classification's top seed.
“I have one of the most talented teams I have ever had. We are not deep in terms of numbers, but deep in terms of talent,” Bishop Canevin coach Kevin Zielmanski said. “We have not dressed our entire roster for one game this season. Literally, sometimes we show up at our games and just see who is there. It's been less about coaching and more about managing personnel. I just rely on the fact that we have very talented players.”
Randy Unger is one of those. The senior missed almost all of last season with a concussion. But he came back and won the Class AA scoring title with 73 points. Nikita Meskin (20-2, 2.03 GAA) has been strong in goal.
Quaker Valley is the only returning champion that is a top seed. The Quakers (21-1) are looking for their third straight Penguins Cup championship and fifth in nine years.
“Despite the 21-1 record, we have had a number of games this year where we weren't at our best and we still pulled it out,” Quaker Valley coach Kevin Quinn said. “We are well aware it is going to be a competitive playoff bracket.”
Jimmy Perkins won the classification's scoring title with 72 points. He is one of 10 seniors who have helped fuel the Quakers' successful run. The squad is 67-2-1 in its last 70 games.
“I really believe they are taking this playoff seriously, like it's their first time, from the standpoint that we're underdogs,” Quinn said. “Everyone is expecting it to be a wide-open playoff series and anyone can win. It sounds crazy to be the No. 1 seed and playing like the underdog, but the underdog is typically hard working and that's what we want to be. We want to be the hardest workers in the playoffs.”
Mars (17-5) snapped Quaker Valley's PIHL winning streak at 51 games with a 4-3 win on Nov. 26. The Planets have played for the last six Penguins Cups and won three (2009-11).
Joe Sager is a freelance writer.