PG South: Mt. Lebanon wins state hockey title thanks to Scrooge-like defensive tack

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The Mt. Lebanon hockey team believes that a great defense starts with a great offense.

That was certainly the case once again for the Blue Devils, who routed Cardinal O'Hara of Philadelphia, 5-2, for the Class AAA Pennsylvania Cup championship Saturday at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Blue Devils goalie Matt Vaughan gets a celebratory hug from Josh Mandic.
Click photo for larger image.

The Blue Devils' top goal-scorers during the regular season -- seniors Josh Mandic and Shane Ferguson and sophomore Tyler Murovich -- accounted for at least one goal each during the state-title victory to complete a 26-0 season. Ferguson netted two goals and junior forward Sean McDermott accounted for another goal.

The Blue Devils (46-1-3 overall counting non-PIHL sanctioned showcase tournaments in November and December) outscored opponents this season, 175-19.

"Our boys were confident and they worked hard all year," coach Paul Taibi said. "This game was a culmination of all the work, effort and preparation we put in for the entire year."

The Blue Devils dominated Cardinal O'Hara from start to finish although they trailed, 1-0, after the first period. Mt. Lebanon outshot the Lions (19-1-4), 43-13 overall, including 22-3 in the second period, when the Blue Devils went on a 3-0 run.

The Mt. Lebanon offense controlled play in such dominating fashion in the second period, the puck hardly entered the Blue Devils' defensive half of the rink.

Mt. Lebanon was particularly strong "defensively" during the final months of the season when it recorded 10 shutouts in its last 11 regular-season games.

With the exception of a 4-3 win against rival Bethel Park in the Penguins Cup semifinals March 15, Mt. Lebanon did not give up more than one goal in a game over a 14-game stretch that began Jan. 5 with a 9-0 rout of Plum.

Cardinal O'Hara did not get its second goal until 2:12 was left in the state-title game. The Lions scored their second goal while they had a 6-3 manpower advantage from a two-man power play coupled with the risky move of pulling their goaltender. The Philadelphia team also scored its first goal on a power play.

Mt. Lebanon has a collection of better puck-handlers and faster skaters than most scholastic teams. By possessing the puck for much longer periods of time, this gives opponents far fewer opportunities to score.

However, the Mt. Lebanon defense played well when called upon against Cardinal O'Hara. Even the forwards become defense-minded when the situation calls for it. For example, against Cardinal O'Hara late in the game, Ferguson lost his stick during a penalty-kicking situation, but still managed to block two shots with his leg pads about 30 feet from the net.

Mt. Lebanon won its first state championship in hockey in 1976. That team was also unbeaten in league play, going 17-0-8.

"[Going unbeaten this year] puts us in a place that very few teams have been able to do it," Taibi said. "More importantly, down the stretch, everybody seems to want to bring up the fact that we got behind [early in the game] when we hadn't done it all year, but we outshot [Cardinal O'Hara], 33-7, after two periods [so falling] behind really meant nothing to us. It just meant we had to work a little bit harder."

Mt. Lebanon had several near-misses early in the game when it came to scoring goals, but Taibi remained confident.

"I felt we carried most of the play and our kids weren't worried at all," Taibi said.

"I felt [Cardinal O'Hara] was fortunate to score first on their power play. We were working hard and we worked harder in the second period when we clearly dominated the game."

There are eight seniors on the Mt. Lebanon roster. In addition to Ferguson and Mandic, the other 12th-graders include goalie Matt Vaughn, forwards Drew Taucher, James Chichra and Rick Beuke along with defensemen Brandon Dornish and Matt Bartkowski.

However, there are enough talented players expected to return who should make Mt. Lebanon a top PIHL contender again next season.

"I took the job five years ago and the mission statement of the organization was to put a team together that could compete for a state championship every year," Taibi said.

"When the team is successful, a lot more kids come out for it the following year which makes everything more competitive. We'll play every game next season knowing we're going to have a big target on our back and I think that's going to be beneficial to us.

"After my first season at Mt. Lebanon [in 2001-02] we graduated 14 players and had another one transfer, but we still made it to the [Penguins Cup] quarterfinals [in 2002-03] and lost in double-overtime [5-4 to Franklin Regional] and the following year we went to the state finals [losing, 4-3, to Malvern Prep].

"I think our expectations will be just as high next year."


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