Wildcats gore Rams in season finale
WEST MIDDLESEX TWP. -- Zach Cain was still nursing the aftereffects of an emergency appendectomy when Kittanning lost to Pine-Richland the first time the two teams met.
This time, with Cain in the lineup, the Wildcats avenged that one-goal loss and dealt the Rams a crushing 5-2 defeat Thursday night at the Ice Connection of Pittsburgh. Wildcats goaltender Adam Toy stopped 34 shots to pick up the win and clinch both the Northeast Conference championship and the team's best regular season record since going 19-1 in 1997-98.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Kittanning head coach Jeff Smouse said. "They put together two of the strongest periods in a new forecheck against a great team. They were so consistent. I can't say enough about the effort."
No one typified that consistency like Cain, who scored a goal and two assists to lead an offense that netted only three goals the last time the two teams squared off.
"I finally got my chance," Cain said. "I'm really impressed with our power play. We really picked it up and that's what we needed."
Smouse has worked endless hours in practice trying to find some consistency with the man-advantage and his diligence paid off in spades. The Wildcats ripped four power-play goals past Pine-Richland netminder Dan Gazzo, led by Dustin Kellner who scored twice and set up Cain's goal.
"We worked on some new things and made some changes that really helped us put the puck in the net," Kellner said. "I felt pretty good. I went to conditioning (Wednesday) night and I guess it warmed me up."
And heated up the power play in the process.
Kittanning (16-3-1) moved forward Luke Heller back to the left point and rotated defenseman Michael Mercurio into the spot along the right wing boards. The move paid quick dividends as Mercurio scored the Wildcats' opening goal at 11:20 of the first period to knot the game 1-1.
"We're just trying to create something new," Smouse said. "What we were doing before wasn't working, we made some changes in our strategy of getting the puck to the net, we altered that a little bit and the guys executed great."
Both of Kellner's goals came because of players getting the puck to the net. On the first, he picked up a loose puck along the goal line and beat Gazzo on a rebound, while the second he again got the puck down low in a 1-on-1 situation and beat the stunned Rams goaltender to the five-hole.
"I enjoy playing with Dustin because he's a very physical player," Cain said. "I think we work well together."
The results certainly proved that out as Kellner assisted on Cain's goal and Cain helped out on both of Kellner's tallies. It was certainly a much different performance from the Wildcats as compared to the first time the two played, a 4-3 loss that ended Kittanning's 13-game winning streak.
"We needed a big game like this to get our spirits up," Cain said. "We've been talking for the last couple weeks that we had a problem and this is the kind of game that could get us out of that."
After this game, there really is no margin for error.
Kittanning will enter the PIHL Class AA playoffs seeded at least as high as third. The Wildcats moved up a spot after Indiana's 2-1 upset of Greensburg Central Catholic Wednesday. If Moon knocks off Thomas Jefferson tonight Kittanning would move into the second seed and receive a first-round bye.
"We talked before the game of what the implications were," Smouse said. "We had help from Indiana beating G.C.C <#201> .and we've got a lot of momentum going in."
If Thomas Jefferson wins and the bottom of the rankings remains the same, Kittanning will open the playoffs Thursday at home against Trinity, a team the Wildcats whipped 8-2 Jan. 9 in the Hillers lone visit to Belmont Arena.
"You can't take any team lightly in the playoffs," Kellner said. "But the way we're playing right now, I think we can handle them pretty easily."