Goaltender Brian Baker celebrated the Peters Township hockey team’s 3-0 victory over State College in the PIHL Penguins Cup Class AAA semifinals last week for a few minutes.
He smiled. He laughed. He even strung together a few sentences that described how he felt and how the Indians pulled out the win at RMU’s Island Sports Center.
Then talk turned to more serious matters, such as a possible rematch with Bethel Park and tonight’s trip to Consol Energy Center, the third in as many years for Peters Township.
Even though North Allegheny upset the Black Hawks, 4-3, later that night – meaning Peters Township’s opponent will not be the team that sent the Indians to a second consecutive loss on the season’s biggest stage last season – Baker and his teammates aren’t exactly lacking for motivation.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere again,” Baker said. “But we hope to come out on top this time.”
Tonight’s game against No. 3 North Allegheny will start at approximately 9 p.m., the last of three championship games. Top-seeded Peters Township will be vying for its fifth Penguins Cup title, its first since 2005.
And although the back-to-back PIHL final losses – one in Class AA, the other in Class AAA – won’t soon be forgotten, only three players from that first group remain.
“It’s a whole new team,” Peters Township coach Rick Tingle said. “I don’t think that’s on anybody’s mind.”
What will be on Tingle’s mind is North Allegheny’s defense, tops in Class AAA during the regular season. The Tigers allowed just 37 goals in 21 games, an average of 1.8 per game.
In playoff wins over Canon-McMillan and Bethel Park, North Allegheny has given up just four goals, including two against the Black Hawks before the Tigers rattled off three straight to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“They do a great job on defense,” Peters Township captain Trevor Recktenwald said. “I know they have some strong forwards who can bury the puck.”
Chief among those would be Joe Griffin, who has 21 goals in 20 games including a pair against Bethel Park. Cody Black also has two playoff goals, and Connor Cash has contributed four assists.
But if the Indians (19-4) can defend North Allegheny (17-4-2) the way they did State College – holding Stefan Horgas, who entered the game with a Class AAA-best 82 points, scoreless – by funneling any pressure to the outside, Peters Township and Baker should have plenty of success.
“If we keep the shots outside, nobody is going to score on ‘Bakes,’ ” Tingle said after the win over State College. “Overall, with where we kept the shots, it makes it easier on him.”
A balanced attack has also helped; six Peters Township players have scored goals this postseason, led by three each from Recktenwald and sophomore Brady Cochrane. Against State College, defenseman Keenan Witmer joined that group by throwing a shot on goal from the right circle that took a fortuitous bounce.
“I wouldn’t have planned on that one,” Tingle joked. “But Keenan took the shot, got it to the net and scored a game-winning goal in a semifinal game.”
Many after that semifinal game talked about the prospect of facing Bethel Park. “I know a lot of guys, and the rematch would be good,” senior winger Alex DeBolt said. But the truth of the matter is this: The opponent tonight could be the Pittsburgh Penguins. Peters Township just wants to leave Consol smiling.
“We,” Debolt said matter-of-factly, “don’t want to lose again.”
Class A final: Quaker Valley (24-0) vs. Mars (19-3-1), 5 p.m.
Class AA final: Pine-Richland (16-4-1) vs. Latrobe (18-3), 7 p.m.
Class AAA final: Peters Township (19-4) vs. North Allegheny (17-4-2), 9 p.m.
Tip-ins: Peters Township has won its past 15 games. … These two met for a pair of games in mid-December. Peters Township won, 6-4, on Dec. 11 before North Allegheny earned a 2-1 victory two days later. … Baker’s 2.23 goals-against average during the regular season was second to North Allegheny goaltender Brad Thornburgh’s mark of 1.98. … Recktenwald has a Class AAA-best six points this postseason after tallying 67 during the regular season.