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Penn-Trafford ready for semifinal clash

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 4:07 p.m.
Doug Gulasy | Penn-Trafford Star
Penn-Trafford forward Pat Cortazzo (right) celebrates with Steven Cheswick (18) after scoring a goal during a PIHL Penguins Cup Class AAA quarterfinal game against North Allegheny on March 6, 2014, at BladeRunners in Warrendale.

Coming into the 2013-14 season, the Penn-Trafford hockey team wanted to avenge its 3-17-1 finish from 2012-13.

With the PIHL's postseason winding down, the Warriors are doing just that.

Penn-Trafford (14-8) advanced to the Penguins Cup Class AAA semifinals for the second time in three seasons with a 5-4 overtime victory over defending champion North Allegheny last week at BladeRunners in Warrendale. The Warriors will play Peters Township at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday.

“It feels really good, especially after last year and all the losing,” said senior Jonah Graffius, who scored the game-winning goal against North Allegheny. “We knew we had potential this year, and we knew we wanted to kind of make a statement after last year. I think we've done that.”

That the Warriors are still alive is a testament to their resilience, Graffius said. Penn-Trafford began the season by winning 11 of its first 15 games, clinching a playoff spot in the process, but a four-game losing streak dropped the Warriors in the standings.

Penn-Trafford is on a three-game winning streak entering Wednesday's game, including a 4-0 victory over Upper St. Clair in the first round of the playoffs and last week's triumph over North Allegheny.

“I think it says a lot about the character of the team overall that we were able to come together when it really mattered,” Graffius said. “It's easy to lose focus in a 20-game season, especially when you have success at the beginning like we did. But I'm really proud and really happy that we were able to get our focus back, get back on our game and start playing well at the end of the season.”

The Warriors dealt with some adversity for their quarterfinal game against North Allegheny. Three players, including alternate captain Andy Power, were suspended by the PIHL after getting match penalties against Upper St. Clair, and coach Brian Lehneke was also suspended.

But Penn-Trafford began the game strong, taking a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Pat Cortazzo and Jake Miller.

North Allegheny scored with less than a minute left in the first period to cut its deficit to one, then tallied two more goals in the second period to take a 3-2 lead. But Penn-Trafford responded, tying the score on a Jordan Eisenstat goal with 16 seconds left in the second period and taking the lead on Miller's power-play goal at the 11:48 mark of the third.

Again North Allegheny rallied, tying the score with 38.1 seconds remaining in the third.

“There were a lot of heads hanging on the bench,” Graffius said. “But our players have been playing hockey for a long time, most of them, and know things like that happen. They knew all it took was one bounce. While it was really heartbreaking at first, it didn't take much to get our guys back in the game.”

The Tigers got an early power play in overtime, but Penn-Trafford held the Tigers off thanks to some key saves from goalie Eric Phelps. That enabled Graffius to score the game-winner on a scramble in front of the net with about four minutes left in overtime.

Graffius expects a good game Wednesday against Peters Township. Penn-Trafford won the teams' only regular-season meeting, 6-5, Feb. 25.

“The fact that we made it this far in the first place is really exciting for us, so we're just going to go in and we're going to play the way we can,” Graffius said. “We're going to try to grind them down. They're a very good offensive team, but we think we can put a few goals in on them. We'll wear their D down, and we'll try to get the win.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5830, via email at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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