NEVILLE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Junior forward Alex Schall scored with 10:23 left in regulation and Greg Irons made 22 key saves to help Latrobe hold off Hempfield, 3-2, in their Class AA Penguins Cup semifinal at the RMU Island Sports Center Wednesday night.
The Wildcats (18-1-0-1) edged their Westmoreland County counterparts at Colonials Arena for the right to try for their fifth Penguins Cup all-time next Monday. One more victory would give them their first since also claiming the Pennsylvania Cup in 2013.
The Spartans (12-8), who bowed to Latrobe for the third time in Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL) play this season, had finished their 2019-20 campaign second to the Ice Cats in the Class-2A Southeast Division before outlasting Plum in last Monday’s quarterfinals.
Latrobe captain Lane Ruffner, spearheading a defense that had the top team goals-against average (1.50) in the classification entering the Penguins Cup Playoffs, would not let them enjoy the last laugh. Cole Ferri, who registered three assists on the night, passed to Ruffner at the right point. The senior blue-liner’s slap shot was deflected by Schall from the edge of the right wing circle and through the pads of Joe Behler for Schall’s third goal of the playoffs and the eventual game-winner.
“We had struggled a bit toward the end of the second. Coming into the third period, we were trying to get momentum back,” Ruffner said. “We just tried to go as hard as we could until we got one, and hold the lead.”
That lead seemed even more precarious when he was nabbed for a hooking minor with just over five minutes left in regulation and Hempfield pressing.
Still, Latrobe’s top-ranked penalty kill supported Irons effectively. After Hempfield pulled Behler and nearly dribbled one past the senior while going 6-on-5, the Wildcats froze the puck against their own boards to run off the final seconds.
“It was nerve-wracking sitting in there, and not being able to go out and help them,” said Ruffner of the late PK, “but I knew they had it under control, so I wasn’t worried.
“We’ve had a really strong ‘D’ for three or four years now, in varsity, mostly seniors. We’re just a solid group together.”
Hempfield came out flying, but netminder Irons kept his poise and denied all ten shots on goal by the Spartans in the first period. The opportunistic Wildcats took advantage of their futility with 4:32 remaining.
Alex Walker, unable to finish from point-blank range moments earlier, saw Cole Ferri take an outlet pass from Ruffner in neutral ice and trailed the PIHL All-Star into the offensive zone. Walker smashed the rebound of Ferri’s wrist shot from the left side past Behler, who fought admirably while making 41 saves, for a 1-0 Latrobe advantage.
It looked like the ‘Cats might take control when Walker beat Behler again just 39 seconds into the second period. His hard wrister from just inside the right circle tickled the top corner for his second straight tally and third of the postseason.
The Spartans, however, got back into the game by catching the Latrobe defense flat-footed. Hunter Smiles, from the far side of the Wildcats’ net, dished to Matt Traczynski, another mid-season All-Star selection, who easily buried the pass to get Hempfield on the board with 11:29 remaining in the period.
Only 57 more seconds were needed for the Spartans to pull even, as Tristan Lloyd sprung Nicholas Bruno on a breakaway. The latter drew a delayed penalty call, but he beat Irons five-hole anyway while being knocked down from behind, making it a 2-2 contest–he, too, getting his first and only playoff tally.
Hempfield got the first power play for either team with 4:24 left in the second and Ruffner in the sin bin for roughing, but it was Behler who was pressed into more memorable action. He robbed Ferri with a glove save to preserve the tie, until Schall’s big moment, with 2:53 until the intermission.
Latrobe, on the strength of Schall’s greasy game-decider, carries a five-game winning streak into the Class-2A Penguins Cup Final at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township next Monday at 6:00 p.m. EDT.
The ‘Cats will get another shot at top-seeded Baldwin, who defeated Mars 3-2 in overtime later Wednesday night, which handed them their lone regulation loss back on Jan. 30 at Ice Castle Arena in Castle Shannon.
“It’s gonna be fun. It’ll be a blast to go into next week,” Ruffner said. “It’s going to be an honor to lead this team into that game.”