The Mount Lebanon hockey team found itself in a strange position Wednesday night – trailing an opponent.
However, the Blue Devils rallied and held off Bethel Park, 4-3, in a PIHL 84 Lumber Penguins Cup Championship Series Class AAA semifinal in front of a 1,400-plus crowd at the Ice Castle Arena.
“I expected a one-goal game, but I didn’t expect it to be 4-3,” Mount Lebanon coach Paul Taibi said. “We had some problems getting on the same page on our penalty kill. We gave up two power-play goals, but we were able to come back each time. We needed a game like that.”
The Blue Devils (24-0-0) advance to the Penguins Cup championship game against North Allegheny (21-3-0) on March 25 at 5 p.m. at Mellon Arena.
“It just seems like each step gets a little harder. This was a good test for us,” Taibi said. “We knew it was going to be a difficult game, but I think it was the best thing that could have happened for us because we know how hard it’s going to be next Saturday at Mellon Arena.”
It was a rare occurrence for Mount Lebanon to give up one goal, let alone three. The Blue Devils have shut out 15 of their 24 opponents this year and had yielded only one goal against since Jan. 2.
“Coming into this game, I guarantee you Bethel was thinking, ‘If we get one goal, the floodgates are opening,’” said Mount Lebanon goaltender Matt Vaughan, who had 23 saves. “So, we held our composure. Everything that I could see, I was saving. We’re going to have to play a tighter game at Mellon Arena.”
Mount Lebanon dominated the PIHL all season. They entered the game outscoring their opponents, 163-13. The Blue Devils have been so powerful that Taibi struggled to recall the last time his team trailed. After all, it had been more than four months since Meadville grabbed a 1-0 lead on Nov. 14 before dropping a 5-2 verdict to Taibi’s troops.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “The last thing I told them before we broke the huddle for the ice was that it was going to be a 45-minute game.”
Bethel Park (18-5-1) entered the game with quite an impressive resume as well. The Black Hawks claimed last year’s Penguins Cup and state titles. They have won five Penguins Cup and state championships since 1997.
However, none of those accolades seemed to matter to either side Wednesday night.
“All the records are erased and it just turns into a pure battle to see who moves on in the playoffs,” Mount Lebanon captain Matt Bartkowski said. “It was a tough game. They always give us a game. We pulled it out this time, hopefully, we pull it out at the Penguins Cup.”
The high-flying Blue Devils got on the scoreboard first as Josh Mandic tallied a power-play goal 3:17 into the contest.
The Black Hawks answered with a power-play goal of their own. Bryan Brown found the back of the net with 7:59 left in the first period.
Just 49 seconds later, Jeff Konyk put Bethel Park up, 2-1, when his slap-shot sailed past Vaughan and into the goal.
“We were pretty shocked about trailing,” Bartkowski said. “We’ve been playing pretty strong defense all year and our defense has kept us in it. Vaughn has pretty much stopped all the pucks. When they got up on us, we were pretty shocked, but we came back.”
Bartkowski made sure of that as he took Jesse Root’s pass and slipped it into the goal with 24 seconds to play in the first period.
“Our spirits were down after the first two goals went in. It’s a long game and we knew if they were going to play run-and-gun with us, we were going to get chances,” Vaughan said. “There wasn’t anything stopping us. We have a very determined team here. We aren’t looking to say we’ve got to the Penguins Cup. We want to win it.”
Jon Wilen’s goal gave the Blue Devils a 3-2 lead 5:40 into the second period off James Cichra’s pass.
Once again, Bethel Park answered. Brown scored his second goal of the game when he converted on a power play 1:06 later to knot the game at 3-all.
“We knew Bethel Park was going to give us all we could handle and they sure did,” Taibi said. “But, it’s good to get a good test because at each higher level, everyone is going to give everything they have.”
Shane Ferguson, son of former Penguin George Ferguson, regained Mount Lebanon’s lead with a power-play goal with 4:15 to go in the second. Along the far post, he tapped in Bartkowski’s cross-ice pass from the near point.
Neither team scored in the third period and the Blue Devils held on the for emotional triumph. They advance to the Penguins Cup championship for the first time since they won it in 2004. However, they have not won a state championship since 1976.
“We’re real pumped,” Bartkowski said. “Our goal all year has been to win the state championship. We’re getting pretty close. Two more to go.”
Tyler Murovich and Bartkowski both finished with two assists. Ferguson added one helper.
Tim O’Brien had two assists for Bethel Park, while Kye Budziszewski, David Spadacene and Adam Kaczmarek all had helpers.