Baldwin coach Jim Brown thinks there is a clear-cut favorite in the PIHL Open Cup playoffs, which start Sunday and conclude with the title game on March 2 at RMU Island Sports Complex
"At the risk of sounding cocky, I think we're the best hockey team in the league, bar none," Brown said.
Baldwin has won three PIHL titles before, all coming in Class AAA in 1975, 1982 and 1988. If the Highlanders win their fourth title, the offense will likely play a large role.
Before its game Thursday night against Carrick, Baldwin was 16-1-1 and averaging 10.1 goals per game, which would break the Open Cup record of 9.76 goals per contest set by the 2004-05 Chartiers Valley team. The Highlanders lone loss came to Hempfield (16-3). Indiana was 16-0-1 before Thursday, its tie coming against the Highlanders.
All three teams play in the Northeast Conference, and Baldwin will play Indiana in the regular-season finale tonight at Ice Castle Arena to determine that conference's No. 1 seed.
Brown believes that the three best teams in the entire league are from his side of the league.
"Indiana is a very talented team and their coach is a class act," Brown said. "I don't think they have the team speed we have, but I respect that group of players all the way around.
"Hempfield is also talented and their goaltender [Garrett Ciarcamella] might be the best in the league. He's a brick wall back there."
The winner of the eight-team playoff in the Northeast Conference will meet the winner of the Southwest Conference in the championship game. Teams from opposing conferences do not meet during the regular season, so the Open Cup championship will be a first-time meeting between whichever two teams advance to the game.
Harbor Creek is the favorite in the Southwest Conference. The Huskies (17-1 before their game Thursday night against Central Valley) had won 12 games in a row since their lone loss to Blackhawk.
"We're confident, but not too confident," Harbor Creek coach Paul Markiewicz said. "We feel we're starting to play our best hockey right now."
Harbor Creek entered the week with the two top scorers in the Open Class, Logan Conboy and Nick Rocco. The Huskies also have the league leader in wins, goals-against average and shutouts in goaltender Tyler Manna.
Harbor Creek's main challenger may be Morgantown (16-2 as of Thursday), which knocked the Huskies out of the playoffs last season. Harbor Creek beat Morgantown, 4-1, in the teams' only meeting this season.
Peters Township (14-5) and Blackhawk (12-8) also figure to be contenders to take home the title, which was won by Ford City last season.
The Sabers can't defend their title, however, as they merged with Kittanning to form Armstrong, which is playing in Class AA this season.
Players of the Month
Bethel Park senior forward/defenseman Derek Lesnak, Chartiers Valley senior defenseman Tyler Stevenson, Bishop Canevin senior forward Randy Unger and Westmont Hilltop senior goaltender Sebastian Ragno were honored by the Pittsburgh Penguins as the Highmark Players of the Month for January.
Lesnak and Stevenson both scored 10 points in January. Going into this week, Lesnak was in the top 10 in Class AAA in scoring with 33 points, while Stevenson led all Class AA defenseman in points (24) and power-play goals (five).
Unger, who leads Class AA in points, had a huge January, scoring nine goals and tallying 15 assists.
Ragno, in the top two in wins, shutouts and goals-against average in Class A this season, went 4-1 in January, giving up two or fewer goals in each of the five contests.
Point streak snapped
For the first time since Nov. 15, 2012, Indiana's Jess Bartholow failed to record a point.
Bartholow was held without a point in the Little Indians' 3-0 victory against Hempfield Sunday, breaking a 33-game point streak (including last season's playoffs).
The streak was the longest in the league.
Quaker Valley's Jimmy Perkins now holds the longest current streak at 27 games (as of Thursday).
Top Class A teams to meet
Quaker Valley at Freeport, Sunday, 6:45 p.m., Belmont Ice Complex -- The Quakers (18-1) and Freeport (12-3-2 before Thursday's game against Deer Lakes) have the two longest winning streaks in any of the top three classes in the PIHL at 12 and 11 games, respectively.