SALEM TWP, Pa. — The Franklin Regional Panthers, who are the reigning PIHL Penguins Cup Champions and losers of only one game in the regular season, have continued their dominance into the postseason.
The Panthers will now compete in the semifinals of the Single A Penguins Cup playoffs after securing their spot with a 6-0 statement win over an energized Westmont Hilltop team.
Although the scoreboard says otherwise, the task at hand wasn’t supposed to be this easy for the top-seeded Panthers. Westmont Hilltop, who finished the season at 10-6-2, was coming off an emotional 6-5 comeback win last week against Chartiers Valley. Panthers head coach Brian Kurtz, who is in his fourth season, kept that in the back of his mind during the second intermission while Franklin was leading 4-0.
“We were aware of what they did the other night to Chartiers,” said Kurtz. “Kind of the focus in between the second and the third in the locker was that we knew, coming out, we had to keep pressing and set the tone early.”
Panthers forward Cameron Huffman noted that coach Kurtz prepared them very well for a possible comeback.
“We watched film before the game and saw how they came back from a deficit,” Huffman said. “We talked about it in the locker room a bit, but just planned to get pucks deep and play our game.”
The Hilltoppers never had a chance to decrease the four goal deficit and the Panthers came out of the period flying, scoring two goals in the first 50 seconds of the period. Panthers goalie Daniel Soltesz was thrilled was his team’s overall performance, especially on the defensive side of the puck.
“The team played really good in front of me,” said Soltesz. “I think it’s going to help us a lot knowing we can shut down every team with the way we played tonight.”
WIN COMES WITH LOSS
Although the win was very encouraging for the Panthers, the victory didn’t come without sacrifice. Defenseman Justin Gismondi, who is the captain and backbone of the team, was in serious discomfort during the second period and missed the rest of the game.
“It’s a groin injury,” Kurtz said. “He’s been battling a groin issue all year. He’s going to get looked at tomorrow to see the severity of it. It’s probably something that he’s going to have to rest and play through the rest of the way, but it’s been something that’s been nagging him for the last month.”
Gismondi is a very important player for the team. Not only was he the top defensive scorer on the team, but he was the leader of a very strong defensive unit. Losing a key player isn’t ideal for the Panthers and coach Kurtz hopes that he is going to be able to play.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” said Kurtz. “He has a trainer that he works with, but we’re optimistic that he’s going to be able to come back. At what level or speed, we’re not sure yet, but it would definitely be a significant loss if he isn’t good to go.”
Late in the third period, when the score and fate of each team was evident, the tempers began to flair. Nine penalties were assessed between the two teams, and even though this is high school hockey, punches were beginning to be thrown. Kurtz recollected his team to avoid any further injuries or possible suspensions.
“I brought them in after I saw what was going on and basically told them that we have a lot to still play for,” said Kurtz. “We didn’t need anyone getting involved in anything and getting injured or suspended. It was just a matter of keeping your cool and not putting yourself in a vulnerable position.”
PATH TO A CHAMPIONSHIP
Only two games stand in the Panthers way of defending their Single A Penguins Cup title, but in their quest for a crown, the Panthers will have to go through a very talented Thomas Jefferson team first. Defeating Thomas Jefferson won’t be easy, but Kurtz cites a regular season error as a point of strength.
“Unfortunately we did drop the game right before the playoffs to break our undefeated season,” said Kurtz. “The kids really looked forward to that, and maybe it was somewhat good for us. It took that little bit of complacency we had and was a wake-up call for us.”
If the game against Westmont Hilltop gives any indication, the team did wake up. The Panthers were smart defensively and explosive offensively. Huffman says that the team is playing really well together, and after developing chemistry over the regular season, the team is ready to stride through the playoffs.
“We’re playing really well together right now,” said Huffman. “We had a break between that last regular season game and the first playoff game, but were practicing a lot and gelling together nicely.”
Franklin Regional will play Thomas Jefferson on Monday, March 13 at RMU Island Sports Center. The puck is scheduled to drop at 5:45 p.m.