ASTON—When a team's victory is so complete in every aspect, when an entire roster plays as solidly as did on Friday night, the first credits have to go to the coaching staff. Steve Mescanti and his assistant coaches Kraig Kaufhold, Fran Naselli and Eric Wolf have crafted a great group of kids who came together and did their coaches proud in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs.
"Our top guys—Matt (Menta), Gabe (Chuckran), Marc (Gekoski)—have been very good lately," said Mescanti, "but it's the other guys who can make or break your success. Top to bottom, our entire team played the game we needed to tonight. Our forwards were relentless and aggressive. Our defense was strong in our end and Garrett (Johnston) made some big stops when we needed it. A total team effort."
Both teams came out of the gate hitting hard, playing with the win-or-go-home intensity that you need in the playoffs of any sport, but it was clear from the start which team was in control. The entire Penncrest team, especially Matt Menta, Gabe Chuckran and Chris Prince, had sharp eyes and great anticipation of their opponents. The Lions made a nasty habit of intercepting Garnet Valley's passes—an entire game's worth of steals turned over in the first period alone,—and they kept that pace up right through to the end.
Players like JB Burdsall and the team's lone senior, Marc Gekoski, laid out some punishing hits to combat Garnet Valley's intensity and kept Penncrest from taking more of a pounding than they were giving back.
Despite outshooting the Jags 10-4 in the first eight minutes, it was Garnet Valley that scored first, knocking in a rebound after Lions netminder Garrett Johnston made the initial save. It would be the only time Garnet Valley possessed the lead.
With 23 seconds left in the first period, Penncrest's powerplay unit moved the puck around the perimeter until Prince got it to defensemen Sam Impagliazzo, who ripped it on goal from the blue line. The puck struck Garnet Valley players, but found its way into the net. In typical Philly hockey crowd fashion, both congregations of high school students showered each other with a barrage of hollared insults and bold future promises.
Two minutes into the second period, Johnston was called upon to make a stop on a breakaway after a Penncrest turnover. The Lions immediately came roaring back the other way, and a streaking Menta was hauled down from behind with an arm wrapped around his neck. On the resulting powerplay, Menta got his revenge by centering the puck to Gekoski between the circles, who then went top shelf with a wrister, beating Garnet Valley goaltender Michael Selverian and giving his team its first lead of the game.
With just under seven minutes to play in the second, defenseman Tom Naselli stole the puck and sprung an odd-man rush, feeding Menta who then got it to wingman Evan DelCasale, whose wrist shot beat the goalie through the five-hole. A minute later, one frustrated Garnet Valley player laid out Penncrest's Chris Coughlin with a cross-check from behind, and followed it up with a punch thrown at another Lion. The Jaguar player then hopped the wall and sat on the bench.
After some heated words from both teams' players and much milling about on the ice, Garnet Valley found themselves charged with two separate penalties, one minor and one double-minor, to run concurrently. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in the game.
With just two seconds remaining on the minor penalty, Gekoski scored his second powerplay goal of the night, assisted by the dangerous Menta-DelCasale combination. While Garnet Valley was still serving out the remainder of the double-minor, Chuckran, who had been bombarding the Jaguars' goal all game with shots from all over the ice, blasted another one from the blue line that was saved. Menta picked up the rebound and patiently controlled it until he popped it into a wide open net over a prone goaltender for Penncrest's fourth powerplay tally of the night.
Garnet Valley switched goalies at that point, and by the end of the second period, Penncrest was still ahead 5-1, and had outshot Garnet Valley 20-8.
The Jaguars got one back early in the third period, but the writing was already on the wall. Penncrest came back minutes later, with DelCasale and Brendan Howanski hammering away in front of the net until Hownaski knocked in the goal. With 4.5 minutes left, Menta put away another rebound from another Chuckran blast from the point. It was Menta's team-leading fifth point of the night. He was one of six Lions with multiple points en route to the 7-2 win.
Coach Mescanti summed up the key difference of the night.
"Discipline. Garnet Valley is a team that thrives on emotion and feeds off it. We got an early jump on them—even though we didn't score (first). We thought we could win if we played our game and stayed out of the penalty box and that's what happened. We only took one penalty and that was late in the game," Mescanti said. "We scored four powerplay goals which kind of broke it open. Discipline was one of the things we stressed. A bad penalty, or worse yet, a powerplay goal against you can swing a game at this time of the year and we wanted to avoid that. I can't say enough about our whole lineup and the intensity and work ethic tonight."
The Lions can now look forward to Monday night's contest against Radnor, at 7 p.m. at Ice Line, the second-place team in the Central League. Mescanti said he expects a tough challenge for their team, but the Lions are on a hot streak right now. They recently beat first-place Springfield in the regular-season finale, which means they can conceivably beat anyone if they play at the level they played Friday night.