Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

PIHL

Highlander Endgame: Baldwin Turns OT Tables on Mars for Penguins Cup Final Spot

Noah Fischer (52) celebrates his game-winning goal with Justin Pollard (89) in a semifinal game against the Mars Planets at the RMU Island Sports Center on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2020. -- ED MAJOR II

NEVILLE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Senior forward Noah Fischer swatted a loose puck past All-Star goaltender Danny Mitchell 4:21 into the first sudden-death overtime period to give top-seeded Southwest division champion Baldwin (19-1) a 3-2 triumph over Northwest Division champion Mars (11-9) in the second of two Class-2A Penguins Cup semifinal games at the RMU Island Sports Center Wednesday night.

Sophomore defenseman Nelson Buys, shooting from distance and through a crowd, got through to Mitchell, who lost control just long enough for Fischer to bury the rebound for his first goal since Jan. 27, ending a six-game drought, and one of the biggest in program history.

“I’ll never forget that one,” a beaming Fischer said after what he described as “100 percent” the biggest goal of his hockey career. “We had the momentum going into their zone, and as soon as we get it up to the point, we just like to go hard to the net. It was a great shot by Nelson – a nice, low shot – and as soon as I see a rebound, I’m just slapping at it. Next thing I know, it’s in the back of the net.”

Southwest Division flag-bearer Baldwin, which won western Pennsylvania’s first organized high school hockey championship in 1975, will play Latrobe next Monday for a shot at its first Penguins Cup since 1988, and first at the Class-2A level.

The club’s last title of any kind came in 2014, when it captured the Open Cup as a member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s original second, or “open,” division prior to league-wide realignment.

What went around came around for the Planets, eight days removed from an OT winner to cap off an instant classic against Montour in the quarterfinal round at the Baierl Ice Complex in Warrendale. Baldwin had also prevailed over Mars at that same venue in an earlier 10-5 slugfest between the schools, back on Nov. 18.

This time, the Highlanders, the second-highest scoring team in their classification during the 2019-20 PIHL regular season, needed to play a more engaged defensive game and, with neither goaltender blinking much, stay patient.

“I just told them [before overtime] to calm down a little bit. We’re at our best when we simplify things,” said head coach Justin Glock. “Our first two goals were shots from the point where we got deflections and rebounds. It was sort of a strange game, so we just needed to keep getting pucks to the net and hope to get a bounce, which eventually happened.”

Mitchell did yeoman’s work with his 42 saves, and he was instrumental in helping Mars kill off a relentless Baldwin power play early in the third period with Colin Boyle off for interference. That bought time for the dynamic duo of Mack Riemer, last week’s bonus-hockey hero, and Wes Scurci to force the extra period.

Riemer fired on Mitchell’s fellow All-Star, Baldwin netminder Tanner Cindrich, from the slot area. Cindrich came out to challenge and made one of his 19 stops, but couldn’t locate the puck before a hard-charging Scurci pushed it into the vacated net with 7:38 left in regulation.

With the Highlanders leading 1-0, after Buys took an interference penalty of his own, Riemer got Mars on the board. Sean Newman, from the left wing, connected with him right at the top of the crease for an easy tap-in with 6:34 left in the first period, his third goal of the Penguins Cup Playoffs.

It offset the first postseason tally by Joey Jacobs, which came 3:29 into the opening frame. Robbie Aranos put a shot on Mitchell from up high that, in a harbinger of things to come, the senior could not handle until the persistent Jacobs put it home.

Baldwin defenseman and team captain Zach Pender pinched to help his team retake the lead two-and-a-half minutes into the second. Camped out to the left of Mitchell, he redirected a blast from Buys at the right point to make it a 2-1 affair.

The Highlanders then killed off a two-man advantage that lasted 49 seconds, with Buys feeling shame for two minutes for cross-checking, to preserve their one-goal advantage until the Planets generated enough momentum with their own PK to prolong the drama unfolding inside Colonials Arena.

Mars paid a physical price as well, with Austin Radomski and captain Hudson Finn both sustaining injuries in the third period, though Finn remained in the game. But nothing could derail the determination displayed by Baldwin, which out-shot the Planets 20-6 in the final 17 minutes and owned all six shots on goal in the overtime.

“I thought we went really hard for all three periods,” Fischer said. “The effort was there, and we never gave up. We were always going hard, and even though there were a few breakdowns here and there, we always picked each other back up. There was a lot of positivity on the bench today.”

Standing in the way of that elusive Penguins Cup title is Latrobe, which defeated Hempfield by an identical 3-2 final score in Wednesday’s other semifinal contest. Baldwin handed the Ice Cats their only regulation loss, Jan. 30 at the Ice Castle Arena in Castle Shannon.

The opening faceoff of next Monday’s Class AA Penguins Cup final is set for 6:00 p.m. EDT at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township.

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