Last season, Fox Chapel battled through a tough 3-18 regular season. Normally such a record would cause a team to temper expectations the following year, but Foxes head coach Cory Rome took the opposite approach heading into the 2010-11 season.
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When his team gathered for their first meeting of the season, Rome gave his players a clear image of where he expected his club to be at the end of the season.
“Coach Rome had a picture of CONSOL Energy Center at that meeting,” forward Christian Wirginis remembered. “He told us that ‘we are going to be playing here during the Penguins Cup playoffs.’”
Fast forward several months to the present and Rome’s squad WILL be heading to CONSOL Energy Center next week to compete in the semifinal round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League postseason derby thanks to a pair of goals by Wirginis and a late game-winning goal by Bryan Hovanec that lifted the Foxes to a 4-3 defeat of the Norwin Knights at the Valley Sports Complex on Wednesday night.
While Class AAA’s top seed found a way to live to fight another day, Norwin’s relentless, never-say-die attitude kept the Foxes on edge all evening as the Knights gave Fox Chapel everything they could handle by overcoming three separate one-goal deficits before Hovanec’s tally with 5:41 remaining in regulation sealed the deal.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game,” Rome said. “They played us tough earlier in the season (on Oct. 25) when we beat them 5-4.”
The difference on Wednesday night, much like it was on Oct. 25, was the special teams battle.
In the first meeting, Fox Chapel used three power-play goals and a shorthanded tally to polish off the Knights. On Wednesday night they received a pair of power-play markers from Wirginis and finished perfect on the penalty kill, including a six-on-four kill in the final seconds after Norwin pulled its goaltender.
“We put a lot of emphasis on both special teams all season,” Rome said. “We finished the season with 26 power-play goals and 10 shorthanded goals. You need those one or two goals a game at this time.”
To win in the postseason you also need scoring from up and down the lineup, and Fox Chapel certainly received that against Norwin.
Although a superb performance by the Knights’ defensive corps kept Daniel Humes and Jacob Friedland – two of Class AAA’s top scorers this season – in check with one assist each, secondary scoring from the likes of Wirginis, Hovanec and Colin Cheng ultimately allowed Fox Chapel to withstand the upset bid.
Cheng opened the scoring for both teams 4:30 into the opening period by ripping a slap shot from the far point past the shoulder of Norwin netminder Scott Cromling.
Wirginis picked up the first of his two power-play goals at 13:04 of the second period by slamming home a rebound chance. His second goal came with 2:05 left in the same period when his shot from the near faceoff dot glanced off the glove of Cromling and jumped into the cage.
“The first goal was just a matter of working hard around the net and popping home the loose puck,” Wirginis said. “The second goal was kind of lucky because I was just throwing the puck to the net. That shows that no shot is a bad shot at this time of the year.”
But each time the Foxes would tally, Norwin would be quick to answer.
Tim Palmer scored from the top of the crease in the first period, Joe Demarchi converted a Dante Youhon rebound in the second and Daniel Merz made a great individual play to knot the score at 3-3 with 10:55 to play in the final period.
However, with overtime seemingly on the horizon, Hovanec scored the back-breaking goal with 5:41 left to play.
After picking the puck up in the neutral zone, Hovanec skated down the far boards, emerged untouched out of the corner and tucked a shot along the ice to the near post behind Cromling.
“I saw that the defenseman on me was cross up,” Hovanec said. “Once I saw that I just wanted to drive to the net. It’s an unreal feeling right now – it’s unbelievable.”
After disposing of the Knights, Fox Chapel’s unbelievable turnaround season isn’t done yet. They plan to come to CONSOL Energy Center next week with a purpose – to finish this mission they are on.
“For us, this has to be just like any other game,” Wirginis said. “We will have business to take care of, so we just have to play our game and do it.”