NEVILLE TWP, Pa. — Everything seemed to be right on plan for the Franklin Regional Panthers. The team went into the playoffs sitting at 17-1, with their lone loss coming in the last game of the season. In their first 17 wins, they had yet to be in a game decided by one goal.
After breezing through their first round matchup, the Panthers expected to roll into the Penguin Cup championship with a win against lower seeded Thomas Jefferson on Monday. However, Thomas Jefferson gave them everything they can handle and more. An empty netter kept it from being a one score game, but the Panthers walked away from their biggest scare of the season with a 6-4 win at 84 Lumber Arena.
Things seemed to be right on par with their entire season when Franklin Regional jumped out to a 3-0 lead. However, a Power Play goal by Hayden Hintemeyer of Thomas Jefferson temporarily changed momentum. The Jaguars scored the next two goals and skated into the third period with a 3-3 tie.
“It was not the way we envisioned it.” head coach Brian Kurtz mentioned. “Getting a three-goal lead and letting it slip on a couple of fluky goals and bad bounces. However, there was no panic, all the guys stepped up, and we kept playing our game.”
From tied to down 4-3, a breakaway goal mid way through the third period put the Panthers behind. Still, the team stayed poised, and finished with three unanswered goals, including the game winner by Nick Carretta with just 1:20 to go in regulation.
Sophomore forward Oldrich Virag had a night to remember. Aside from assisting the game winning goal to Carretta, Varig scored three himself, and added another assist to give him a five point night in the win.
“It was a good night for me, the puck was bouncing my way.” commented Varig. “I was able to take advantage of my chances, and even had a few more chances that I didn’t take advantage of.”
The fact of the matter is that Varig was creating and finding chances all night. Varig scored the teams second and third goals, and down 4-3, he tied the game with just 3:19 to go. The team’s second leading scorer saw his hard work pay off in a high-intensity atmosphere and he was the difference maker in this one.
“I just kept pushing and pushing and keeping my spirits up,” noted Varig. “We knew we were getting chances and that eventually it would pay off.”
The game seemed to be in hand for the majority of play. Franklin Regional outshot Thomas Jefferson, 46-17 and with their three-goal lead midway through the second period it was appeared to be all but wrapped up. Of course, that is why they finish playing the game.
Franklin Regional blew the lead, and entered the third period tied for just the third time all season. They also had never trailed that late into a game this season. The Panthers were forced to fight through adversity, something they were not experienced at coming into the game. However, they faced their adversity head on, and proved that they can handle anything thrown at them.
“We rallied together in the locker room,” stated Nick Carretta. “We told each other what we needed to do and we did it. We knew to stick to our systems and we knew the goals would come.”
“We’ve had a couple times playing from behind, third periods tend to be our strong periods.” mentioned Kurtz. “ We played indiana, and it was tied going into the third, Kiski, same thing. We knew with our depth and strength that as long as we kept playing our game, and didn’t take any bad penalties, eventually we would wear them down and find the back of the net.”
Their coaches message resonated and it came true as the Panthers went on a scoring spree late to relinquish the lead, and hold onto it for good.
ON TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP
After all of the excitement of the semi-finals game comes the realization that they are still one game away from a Penguins Cup championship. Franklin Regional will now have to regroup, and face another tough test next week.
“We have to play a better game defensively.” coach Kurtz mentioned when thinking about their next task. “We have to play better defense in front of [goaltender Danny Soltesz]. We’ve prided ourselves on defense, and as long as we play as a unit defensively and play our game we have a great opportunity.”
The Penguin Cup Final will be played on Tuesday, March 21st at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.