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Not much was expected from Canon McMillan when the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League began postseason play in early March. The Big Macs entered the postseason dance as the No. 8 seed in Class AAA.
Funny thing is, nobody remembered to mention as much to Canon McMillan. They proved to be giant slayers throughout the race to the 84 Lumber Penguins Cup Final knocking off the No. 3 seed (State College) and No. 1 seed (Shaler), before completing their magical journey on Saturday night with a dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 overtime defeat of fourth-seeded Seneca Valley en route to being crowned Class AAA champions.
Senior forward Mario Dalesandro wore Superman’s cape in this contest, banking the winning shot off of a Seneca Valley defender 1:42 into overtime. Dalesandro’s tally capped a second-consecutive comeback overtime victory for the Big Macs, who sent the game into the extra session on a Brett Oldaker tally with just 18.2 seconds remaining in regulation.
Canon McMillan also posted a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory in their win over Shaler, tying the game in the third period on a Dalesandro marker and winning it in overtime on Joe Mottiqua’s individual effort.
“We call ourselves the miracle team,” Dalesandro said. “We are down all the time but we somehow find a way to come back. They call us Cinderella, but the clock hasn’t struck midnight yet.”
“This team has unbelievable heart,” Oldaker said. “We are always up. No matter what we are always up. We never give up. This is a family and we love each other. We knew we could come back if we worked really hard. Fortunately we did in every game we were down.”
If Canon McMillan is Cinderella, then Dalesandro is their prince charming.
With just 46 seconds remaining in regulation Dalesandro lay prone on the ice after being interfered with by a Raiders forward. Dalesandro skated gingerly to the Big Macs’ bench, his availability the rest of the way in question.
Canon McMillan scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game at 2-2, setting the stage for Dalesandro to make a triumphant return to the ice in overtime. Did he ever make the most of it.
As the Big Macs broke into the Seneca zone, the Raiders appeared to have the rush defended well. Then, the puck came to Dalesandro in the left corner. He threw a turning pass towards the front of the net, where it banked off the shin pad of Seneca Valley’s Kaleb Schwab standing just outside the crease and barely squirted over the goal line behind netminder Ryan Schutte for the winning tally.
“I told my guys I was going to be throwing pucks to the net so go (to the front),” Dalesandro said. “I saw both of them there so I just threw them there. I just threw it there. It hit off the skate of one of my amateur teammates. It wasn’t on purpose, but it happened.”
Canon McMillan head coach Yuri Kuvokuha couldn’t say enough about the gutty effort put forth by his star forward.
“That is quite a story right there,” Kuvokuha said. “After he took that big hit, he wasn’t skating well and was completely hurt. I talked to him and he said he was good. He said, ‘let me play, please let me play.’ I was like OK.”
According to Dalesandro, returning to the ice wasn’t really a question.
“I didn’t think it, but in my gut I knew I wasn’t stepping down because I have six months after this to heal it,” Dalesandro said. “I was going to gut it out and do whatever I had to do because I had 19 other family members counting on me to go out there and do my thing. I wasn’t sitting down. No way.”
Dalesandro received the glory in the end, but his goal never would have been possible without the efforts of Oldaker and the Big Macs’ power play as time ticked down in regulation.
With goaltender Brandon Smolarek pulled for a sixth attacker and Canon McMillan down 2-1, the Big Macs swarmed the Raiders’ net during a six-on-four advantage following the penalty drawn by Dalesandro.
A loose puck in the slot came to the blade of defenseman Chris Horan, who was in deep on the play. Horan’s shot went off Schutte and was lying on the goal line when Oldaker managed to guide the puck over the line and send the game to overtime.
“We were desperate to get pucks to the front of the net,” Oldaker said. “We just wanted to get everything we could right there in front. Horan had the shot and it hit off their goalie. I saw it on the goal line and I put it in the net.”
Oldaker and Dalesandro’s goals not only helped clinch the championship for Canon McMillan, but they helped pick up the victory in goal for Smolarek, who had another stellar effort while locked in a goaltending dual with his counterpart Schutte.
Despite how many great saves Smolarek made to keep the Big Macs in the game, it was the turnover he created with just 3:15 remaining in regulation that ate at him most.
Smolarek had a miscommunication with one of his defenseman, resulting in the puck floating unattended to the far corner of the Big Macs zone. The Raiders Tyler Mesisca quickly pounced, setting up a wide-open Logan Pfeffer for the tap-in goal which put Seneca Valley up 2-1.
“We played against a good goaltender today,” Smolarek said. “That was a bad pass on my part to give up the second goal, but my team bailed me out again. They are a great bunch of guys.”
Smolarek’s team was able to help bail him out in the end, much to the chagrin of Seneca Valley.
Even with the heartbreak of losing in the championship round for a second-consecutive season, Raiders head coach Dennis Kirstein said his team has a lot to be proud of.
“I am proud of my kids,” Kirstein said. “They worked their tails off. We were close. We were 18 seconds away. It’s tough, it really is. That doesn’t mean our season wasn’t successful. There were 18 other teams in the league who weren’t here. We did it and we got this far.”
Seneca Valley’s dream might have ended abruptly Saturday night, but for Canon McMillan, they believe they are just getting started.
The Big Macs will take on Flyers Cup champion Cardinal O’Hara at 4 p.m. on April 1 at Mellon Arena for the right to be crowned Pennsylvania state champions.
“We have one more,” Smolarek said. “We are going back to work after tonight.”RELATED ARTICLE: Greater Latrobe Holds Off Late Surge for Three-Peat
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