Franklin Regional hockey hopes to challenge for Penguins Cup
The Franklin Regional hockey team’s first goal was to reach the postseason.
Now, the Panthers can focus on contending for their third PIHL Penguins Cup championship in the past four years.
“It’s that time of the year,” Panthers junior forward Kevin Cakanac said. “It’s just exciting knowing you have a chance to make a run.”
Securing a return trip to the Class AA playoffs was not an easy accomplishment. At one point in early January, the team endured a three-game losing streak. However, a 6-4 win over Penn-Trafford got things turned around and the squad beat Plum and Hempfield, 3-2, in overtime to secure a playoff spot.
“We knew that P-T game was a big one because we still hadn’t clinched for playoffs,” senior goaltender Danny Soltesz said. “We were very relieved to clinch a spot, and we know anything can happen in the playoffs. As long as you get a ticket to there, you’re good.”
After winning Penguins Cup Class A titles in 2016 and ’17, the Panthers were moved up to Class AA last year. They beat Mars, 5-3, in a Penguins Cup play-in round game but fell to Armstrong, 8-2, in the first round. While not one of the top seeds this season, Franklin Regional hopes to make a long playoff run.
“When we won our first Penguins Cup, we were a No. 3 or 4 seed and were not predicted to make it past the first or second round,” Soltesz said. “As long as everyone commits to the plan, anything can happen in the playoffs.”
While first-seeded Pine-Richland has been at the top of the standings all season, the Panthers have been part of the logjam behind the Rams. They realize the gap is not that great among Class AA teams.
“Every team we played against has put up a good fight against us,” Cakanac said. “Other than Pine-Richland, there’s no team that’s really stood out from everyone else.”
Faced with the task of rebuilding its defense with younger players, Franklin Regional changed its style of play. The Panthers are not the high-scoring squad of past seasons but still have some good scoring punch up front. Olda Virag (29 points), Trent Lunden (21), Mathieu Sliva (21), Joe Scherpereel (10) and Cakanac (20) reached double figures in points with one regular season game to go.
“We’ve been getting scoring from even our third line, especially at the end of the season,” Cakanac said. “We’re not worried on the bench when other guys are out there.”
Defensively, senior Dylan Lee and juniors Jack Pekor and A.J. Noll were the only returners. Freshmen Adam Hoff, Benton Yurko and Beatty were forced to take on big roles right away.
“I am so happy with how they’ve progressed. Some of our best defensemen are freshmen,” Cakanac said. “They’ve been able to adjust to our system pretty well, and that’s a credit to great coaching. I can’t wait for the young guys to experience what playoffs are like.”
The Panthers expect their defensemen will be put to the test in the playoffs.
“We’ve been dealing with a couple injuries back there, but they’ve been playing great in front of me,” Soltesz said. “We know playoff games will be close, and those kinds of games are always fun to play in. I am excited the young guys will experience this. Not everyone gets a chance to have a long playoff run.
“Our first goal was just to make the playoffs. Now that we did that, we’re going for the whole thing and we have confidence.”