ASTON—After a rocky start to their season, Penncrest couldn't have asked for a much better ending.
In Wednesday night's regular season finale at Ice Works, the Lions first ceded the ice to their opponents so that Springfield could honor their departing seniors, and then honored their own senior. Singular.
That little fact really brings home just how strong this young team is when they're healthy. Although the Lions sit second-to-last in the Central League standings, they're 6-1 when they have all their starters, including Wednesday's all-around-impressive victory against the top team in their league—a strong Springfield team that was 9-1-2 prior to the finale. Imagine how these young Lions are going to do next year when some of their best players become seniors; a little bigger, a little faster, a little smarter, and with one more year of experience in the bank.
Penncrest bid adieu to stalwart two-forward Marc Gekoski, whose parents met him on the ice for photos before his final regular season game as a Lion.
Head coach Steve Mescanti had this to say about Gekoski: "For Marc, it's the same hope we have for all our seniors. That the lessons learned over the last four seasons will serve him well in life. Marc has been a valuable member of this team over the last four seasons and a strong contributor to our success. We as a coaching staff wish him well in the future."
Gekoski and company then took the ice to get some payback against a team that had beaten them twice this year, with a combined score of 14-1.
Throughout most of the first period, both teams played a tight-checking, smart and disciplined stalemate. The first penalty of the game came against Springfield with two minutes left in the first, and the Lions made it count. Tom Naselli's blast from the point was partially blocked by an opponent's stick and popped high in the air before Evan DelCasale coralled it and put it on net. The puck dribbled past the goaltender and captain Matt Menta slammed his team-leading tenth goal home with 39 seconds left in the period. The tag team of DelCasale and Menta has been deadly all season when both have been healthy.
Penncrest found themselves shorthanded early in the second period, but their penalty killing unit was solid. Again, the period saw two evenly matched teams with smart defenses, great goaltending and hard hits, and quality scoring chances were hard to come by on either side. As the clock ticked down around the 2-minute mark, Penncrest sprung loose on an odd-man rush. Menta let fly with a shot from inside the right circle which was blocked, but with some support from d-man Sam Impagliazzo, the bouncing rebound was picked up by Gabriel Chuckran, who ripped a wrister past Springfield's goaltender to make it 2-0. By the end of the second, tempers on both sides had flared, and there were some ugly exchanges between players.
Garrett Johnston's shutout bid was ruined midway through the third period when the Lions were killing off another penalty. The goal drew protests from Penncrest's players and fans alike when a crucial moment of blatant goaltender interference went uncalled.
"Yeah...he's had a lot of those this year," said one anonymous spectating parent regarding the interfering Springfield player.
With one minute to go, Menta sprung two of his teammates loose with a good outlet pass, and Gekoski took his final regular season shot as a Lion. The goaltender got a piece of it, but not enough to control the rebound as DelCasale tucked it in the twine to seal the game, 3-1.
By the final buzzer, Penncrest had limited the highest-scoring team in the league to just 16 shots and few rebounds.
"Obviously, Matt Menta was the best player on the ice again," said coach Mescanti. "I thought Brendan Howanski played a strong game. Our defense as a whole, and individually Tom Naselli and Sam Impagliazzo had a solid effort."
Now Penncrest can look forward to the playoffs, where they'll face Garnet Valley on Friday.
"Our expectation," said Mescanti, "is that it's going to be a battle as all games are at this time of year. They're playing very well right now—not the same team we faced earlier in the year. We've had a nice stretch of games over the last few weeks and we want to continue to play well as we move into the post season."