North Xtra: Mars hockey keeping eye on the prize on ice

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The Mars hockey team lost its top four scorers from last season, yet the Planets are once again a top contender for the Class A Penguins Cup title.

The Planets entered the week second in points in PIHL Class A with 21 and haven't lost since Nov. 15, a span of nine games. Mars is looking to advance to its sixth Penguins Cup final in a row.

"I think it is mostly consistency in the program," Mars coach Steve Meyers said. "We have had the same coaches at all levels for a while, teaching essentially the same system that we put in place a few years ago, so that really helps."

That type of continuity has allowed for players to be plugged right in and play. So even though Mars lost a combined 192 points from the losses of Austin Heakins, Nicholas Blaney, Joseph Bender and Robert Foley, the Planets continue to have success.

"We always run the same system, so our younger guys are experienced even though they haven't played at the varsity level," Mars senior goaltender Christian Knapp said.

Trevor Tisdale, Owen Vasbinder, Beau Heakins and Nicholas Berteotti have combined to score 23 goals in their first significant action at the varsity level.

Meanwhile, returning lettermen Craig Mazzotta, Ed Schwadron and Max Master have been counted on for more offense after playing secondary roles last season. Mazzotta has a team-leading 26 points (15 goals, 11 assists), while Schwadron has 22 (12 goals, 10 assists) and Master has nine goals and 13 assists.

"It's different this year," Mazzotta said. "Last year, with guys like Austin Heakins, Joe Bender and Nick Blaney leading the way, I could sit back in some of the easier games.

"But now, I have to step up and play hard every game."

While the Mars offense saw significant changes in personnel from last season, two familiar faces have been in net for the Planets all season.

Knapp and Alex Stepke combined to go 13-2 with five shutouts during the 2011-12 regular season, and both returned this season.

It's been crucial that the Planets have two quality goaltenders, because both have been injured this season.

Knapp started the season sidelined with a concussion, so Stepke was in net at the start of the season. Then Stepke sustained a concussion, but by that time Knapp was on his way back.

Knapp has put up some of the best numbers of any goalie in the PIHL, going 6-0-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.

Stepke is 4-2 with a 3.33 goals-against average and an .828 save percentage. The two losses came against Quaker Valley and Kittanning, who are a combined 21-3-1, in the third and fourth games of the season.

"Alex stepped up huge when Christian was hurt at the beginning of the season," Meyers said. "Now that Alex is hurt, Christian has come back and been tremendous for us. Christian is a bigger more traditional butterfly goalie, while Alex is a little more unconventional but very skilled and athletic."

Stepke should be back soon, and the two will try to help Mars win its fourth Penguins Cup title in six years. At this point, anything less than a title would be a disappointment.

"We come into the season with those expectations," Knapp said. "The coaches really motivate us to be in the same shoes as the other successful teams we've had here."

Mars will play Kittanning again at 6:15 tonight at Belmont Ice Complex in West Kittanning.



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