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When the puck was dropped at Mellon Arena shortly after 9 p.m. in the Class AAA Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League semifinal matchup, top-seeded Shaler was poised to make defending Penguins Cup champions 3-for-3 in returning to the title game in 2010.
Their opponent, No. 8 seed Canon McMillan, had other ideas. One week after knocking off third-seeded State College, the Big Macs were at it again, stunning the Titans with a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory to earn a date on Saturday with Seneca Valley in the championship game of the 84 Lumber Penguins Cup Championship Series.
Canon McMillan’s Joe Mottiqua played the role of hero by notching his second goal of the night 7:08 into the extra session.
Mottiqua took a pass from teammate Alexander Baskakov in the neutral zone and darted down the right wing, slipping through a check by one of the Titans along the near boards before sneaking a shot top shelf during four-on-four action.
“I beat the D wide,” Mottiqua said. “I picked my head up real quick and I saw the goalie off his post. I put a low wrist shot down short side and beat him right to the six-hole.”
Mottiqua’s overtime winner highlighted a resilient performance by the Big Macs, who overcame deficits of 2-1, 3-2 and 5-4 to pull off the biggest shocker of the playoffs. Canon McMillan also withstood a furious shorthanded flurry from Shaler three minutes into the extra frame.
With the Big Macs on their second man-advantage of the overtime session at the seven-minute mark, Shaler’s Shane Shiring and Zac Lynch picked off a pass at the top of their own zone and headed up ice. They ended up getting five outstanding chances on Canon McMillan goaltender Brandon Smolarek, but the senior made a couple huge saves, saw one shot hit the post, watched a teammate block another shot and had a fifth chance float through the crease wide of the net.
“Oh man, talk about nerves,” said Smolarek, who made 37 saves, of the sequence. “Like I said, the defense bailed me out on a few of those. Everyone was good today.”
“I was holding my breath for at least 45 seconds on the bench,” Mottiqua said. “Smoly made some great saves and we got a lucky bounce up ice.”
Before all the late heroics were necessary, Canon McMillan actually entered the third period leading 4-3 following late second period power play goals from Brett Oldaker and Mario Delesandro.
But two gorgeous Shaler goals 25 seconds apart by Billy Dobson and Sean McCue gave the Titans a 5-4 lead with 10:51 left to play in the final period. McCue’s tally was his third of the game.
It appeared Shaler was going to put the defensive clamps on the Big Macs down the stretch, but Canon McMillan instead sent the Titans reeling into overtime by tying the game, 5-5, on what appeared to be a harmless rush into the offensive zone.
After creating a turnover in the neutral zone, Delesandro skated the puck over the Shaler blue line and elected to throw a 50-foot snap shot towards the net. Shaler netminder Oscar Prom had trouble reading the shot due to a screen as the puck sailed over his left shoulder for the game-tying goal.
“I don’t shoot the puck often, but when I do, it’s hard,” Delesandro said. “My teammates say, ‘shoot more!’ Today, I told myself before the game to take five shots. I was at four so I needed one more. It felt good coming off my stick, I can tell you that.
“All of my shots are to that corner, but I just really wanted to get it on net. That is basically all I do. I was actually heading to the net looking for a rebound on that one.”
The Big Macs now have one more giant to slay when they battle fourth-seeded Seneca Valley at 9 p.m. on Saturday in the championship game. Seneca Valley pulled off an upset of their own to reach the title game, shutting out No. 2 seed Upper St. Clair, 5-0, on Monday behind five Brandon Platt tallies.
Mottiqua says the Big Macs won’t enter that contest feeling like the lesser opponent. He said the team ranked among the top teams in Class AAA all season, and that all the players in their locker room have faith they can continue along what they hope will be a championship ride no matter what their seed says.
“Before the game we were listening to the song ‘Underdogs on Top,’” Mottiqua said. “We don’t believe this is an underdog situation here. … We don’t care about seeding. We know (all the teams) are equal.”