The NCAA Tournament isn’t the only place for thrilling finishes in March.
The Penguins Cup Class AAA final saw a fantastic finish between the Upper St. Clair Panthers and the Canon McMillan Big Macs. The Panthers scored a late, tying goal, and Michael Sweeney’s overtime tally lifted USC over Canon McMillan, 4-3, for the Panthers’ first championship in 20 years.
“Words can’t even explain how happy I am,” Sweeney said.
Despite outshooting Canon McMillan 33-8 after the first two periods, USC trailed, 2-1, during the second intermission. But senior Justin Selep scored the game-tying power-play goal with just 1:47 remaining in regulation to push the game into a sudden-victory overtime period.
With 6:50 remaining in overtime, Sweeney found a loose puck behind the net and stuffed in a wraparound for the victory.
“I just tried to go hard to the net,” Sweeney said. “We knew that if we just kept the puck out of our zone and kept playing like we were that we were going to be alright”
Upper St. Clair coach Larry Marks said he couldn’t be more proud of his team’s effort.
“It was absolutely phenomenal,” Marks said. “The kids played their hearts out. They played great on Monday against Fox Chapel and they played great again tonight.”
Upper St. Clair put the pressure on Canon McMillan early, as the Panthers threw everything and the kitchen sink at the Big Macs. USC finished their first period onslaught with a 20-1 advantage on the shot clock, but Canon McMillan goalie Ryan Palonis stood on his head to turn aside every shot.
Canon McMillan didn’t registered its first shot until Nicholas Harrison’s slapper from the point was gloved down by USC goalie Michael Ambrose with less than five minutes remaining in the opening period.
The Panthers finally broke through early in the second period, when Michael Segerdahl tipped a Ryan Heleski slapshot behind Palonis to give USC the 1-0 lead.
But with 9:46 remaining in the second period, Canon McMillan tied things up. After a faceoff win, Brett Oldaker stick-handled through the left circle and blistered a wrister past Ambrose’s right shoulder to tie the game, 1-1.
Upper St. Clair threw an additional 13 shots at Canon McMillan’s net in the second period, but Palonis stifled the attack. And the Big Macs made the most of their limited opportunities. With 2:36 remaining in the second, Anthony Tonkovich sent a home run pass up the ice to Oldaker, who made it past the defense for a breakaway.
Oldaker directed the puck past Ambrose to give Canon McMillan the 2-1 lead.
“If you look at the shots at the end of the second, we had 33 and they had eight, there was no way they were going to take the game from us,” Sweeney said.
USC tied it up again at the beginning of the third period. With 13:21 remaining, Christopher Murray carried the puck all the way up the ice, and split the defense – twice. He then chipped the puck past Palonis to even the score, 2-2.
“He’s done it all year,” Marks said of Murray. “He’s done it the last four years. He’s just a phenomenal offensive talent, and he’s learned to play defense, too.”
But the Big Macs weren’t rattled, and they didn’t waste any time regaining the lead. A few minutes after Murray’s goal, Canon McMillan’s Alex Baskakov ripped a shot from the right circle that bounced off Ambrose’s pads right out into the slot. Zachary McKown swooped in to the doorstep to slam the puck home to give Canon McMillan the lead once again.
With the clock winding down, USC kept the pressure on the Big Macs and didn’t back down, drawing a late penalty to set up Selep’s and Sweeney’s heroics.
“When I stepped on the ice, I didn’t think I was going to score the game tying goal, but I wanted it,” Selep said. “When a team works hard the puck finds the back of the net. It was just fortunate that I put it in.”
The fact that it was Sweeney, a sophomore, who won the game for the Panthers indicates the direction USC hockey is headed, Selep said.
“I’m so proud of him,” Selep said. “He’s going to be the future of St. Clair hockey – him, Stork, Gielarowski, Shoup. They’re going to be the future, and scoring a big goal like that builds confidence. We’re going to ride it and see what we can do in states.”