GREENSBURG, Pa. — Over the last two years, Mars has won an awful lot of playoff games. The Planets were the 2015 Penguins Cup champions in Class A, moved up to Class AA in 2016 and nearly won again, getting all the way to the championship game.
Latrobe head coach Josh Werner said before the game that he thought his less-experienced team might have to weather the storm a bit in the first period while facing a veteran Mars squad in the first round of the PIHL Penguins Cup playoffs.
They trailed by a goal after the first eight minutes, and it looked like the veteran Planets might pull away, but a furious third period comeback led the Wildcats to a 5-4 victory at Kirk S. Nevin Arena and a chance to move on to the quarterfinals in Class AA.
While Werner said his team might have to weather a storm, they actually got out to an early 1-0 lead on a Blake Rossi power play goal. But that’s when Mars unleashed senior defenseman Noah Raymundo.
Simply put, the Planets’ captain took over the game. His first goal came on a shot from the top of the left-wing circle that went off the crossbar and in behind Latrobe netminder Ryan Pal. Just 58 seconds later, Raymundo found an open spot in the Wildcats’ defense and the rebound of a Braden Hanna shot came right to him for an easy goal.
Just like that, it was 2-1 and although the Wildcats maintained a large territorial advantage throughout the game, the Mars defense and goaltender Tyler Spreng held them off the board until the third period.
“It was tough,” said Latrobe senior Cory Gates. “He played out of his mind. I think we had 25 shots at the intermission and only one goal. We just knew we had to keep shooting and pound one home.”
The period break was also the end of the moment for Mars, though. As soon as the Zamboni cleared the ice, things swung back in Latrobe’s favor. Gates and junior J.T. Schimizzi each scored a pair as Latrobe erupted for a four-goal third.
“We came in, recuperated and talked about what we needed to do,” Werner said. “We kind of left it up to the guys. All the sweat we had in practice through the season came down to 17 minutes. They really dug deep and left it all out there.”
Werner thought the fresh ice benefitted his Wildcats, while Mars coach Steve Meyers said his shorthanded squad may have simply ran out of gas.
“I could tell towards the end of the second period, we just went into a shell,” Meyers said. “We were totally gassed. We’re playing with 12 or 13 guys, two of which are JV call-ups that don’t play much. … We were in a tough spot, but I thought our guys played really great.”
Raymundo added one more to complete the hat trick and Nick Kiefer scored with the goaltender pulled in the final minute, but the Wildcats were the ones celebrating when the clock read zeroes.
END OF AN ERA?
The Planets will lose several key players, including Raymundo and Spreng. After everything the group has been through, including back-to-back finals appearances, the loss was not the way they wanted to go out.
“It’s a special class,” Meyers said. “It’s the last guys we have that contributed to the Penguins Cup win. … Those are some really big names to lose and the majority of our offense. Our challenge next year is that he numbers in our program are scary light. We’re going to be coming back with the same numbers next year, if not less.”
FROM MARS TO MOON
The win earns Latrobe a date with the Moon Tigers, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference. That quarterfinal game will be played at Baierl Ice Complex at 9:20 p.m. on Thursday. The Tigers beat the Wildcats, 4-3, in the teams’ only meeting this season back in November.