With a chance to clinch the outright Class AA Section 4 championship on Feb. 18 against second-place Hampton, Pine-Richland played possibly its best game of the season.
The Rams scored three goals in the first period and six in the second in a 9-0 win against their rivals.
"It was definitely a lot easier than I thought," Pine-Richland coach Mike Bagnato said. "We've been playing well lately and our defense has been playing very, very well."
Pine-Richland only allowed 10 shots against the Talbots, two fewer than Hampton had against the Rams in a 5-0 Pine-Richland win Jan. 21.
Entering the week, the Rams had allowed 20 or fewer shots 11 times in 19 games and trailed only Latrobe in Class AA in fewest shots allowed. The Rams closed their regular-season schedule with a 7-1 victory against North Hills Monday to finish with a 14-4-1 record.
Bagnato wants his team to play very aggressively, so a lot of the team's defensive success starts up front with the forwards, who have done a good job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone.
"Our offense complements the defense," Rams junior defenseman Kyle Cunningham said. "They do a good job of keeping the puck so we don't have to play as much defense."
But when the opposing team does break into the Pine-Richland defensive zone, it often has to deal with Cunningham, an all-star defenseman who is on the ice more than any other Ram.
"He's a huge part of our success," Bagnato said. "He's getting more playing time than anyone on our team and he's usually matched up with the opponent's best line. He's extremely, extremely important. He's doing a very good job."
Cunningham is usually paired with either Tyler Ziegler or Chad Rarig. The Rams are also getting very good contributions on the blue line from Mike Oakes and Nick Jenkins.
"They've all stepped up and done very well," Bagnato said.
And if an opposing player is able to break past the forwards and the defense and actually gets a shot off against Pine-Richland, he still has to find a way to get the puck past all-star goaltender Brendan Bagnato.
Erie Cathedral Prep did as good a job as anyone at getting through the Pine-Richland defense and peppering Bagnato with shots in a game on Dec. 6. The Ramblers, however, could only get one of their 31 shots past the Rams senior goaltender in a 4-1 Pine-Richland win.
"With [Bagnato] back there, we don't have to worry," Cunningham said. "We can stay in between players and block the pass and let them take the shot because of our confidence in him. He's the last line of defense."
Pine-Richland has won four games in a row and has victories the past six times Bagnato has been in goal. In those six games, the Rams have allowed just four goals.
"We feel like when we play our best, we are one of the best teams in the league," Cunningham said.
Pine-Richland, the No. 4 seed, opened the PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup Wednesday night against No. 5 Erie Cathedral Prep.