By Joe Sager
WARRENDALE – No Heinz, no problem.
Hunter Grafton scored three goals and Christian Miller added two more Tuesday night to lead Kittanning to a 5-3 win over Mars in a PIHL Class A battle at BladeRunners.
Last year, Kittanning boasted the PIHL’s top three scorers in Class A in Heinz Koster (91 points), Miller (69) and Grafton (68). Koster graduated from a Wildcats team that advanced to the Penguins Cup semifinals.
However, Grafton and Miller returned this season. And, along with new winger Elijah Johns, Kittanning is among the Class A contenders. The Wildcats (2-0) showed that against the Planets (2-1).
“It was a really good test. We had kind of a rough preseason, but we played some really tough teams. I think it’s a big win for us. We’re really how proud of the way we played, especially in the third period, to hold the lead,” Kittanning coach Jamie King said. “We lost so much of our lineup last year – three defensemen who played major, major minutes. Heinz Koster was as good a player as there was in Western Pennsylvania last year. When you lose that, it makes people wonder what we’re going to have. I think this does get some of our inexperienced guys some experience in a big game this early in the season. This shows them what we expect and what kinds of games we’re going to get. We’ll see Mars again and it’ll be a great game. You know Quaker Valley will be good, as well as Westmont – the same six or seven teams. Right now, this is just two points, but it’s a big two points.”
Grafton led the way with three goals and two assists.
“This win boosts our morale to the ceiling, really. We knew we had to come in here and play well against Mars. This is a huge win for us. Mars is always one of the top teams and we’re right up there now,” he said. “Now people will be looking at us and think we have a chance. At the beginning of the year with losing Heinz, I don’t think anyone gave us a chance. Now, maybe they’ll say these Wildcats have something going.”
Miller added two helpers to his two tallies.
“It was a great game all around. We’ve been waiting for this win for a while. It’s definitely some revenge for last year’s early exit in the semifinals. Our goal this year is a state championship, so this is a great step toward that,” he said. “Our line works very well together. We lost a big player from last year in Heinz Koster. This year, Hunter and I came back with the mentality of just wanting to get the ‘W’ and we’re just working really well together. Eli is a new part of our line. We’re just feeling it right now.”
Mars took an early 1-0 lead on Craig Mazzotta’s goal 7:43 into the game. Koster tallied twice in a 28-second span to post a 2-1 edge. The Planets’ Trevor Tisdale found the back of the net 26 seconds later as the first period ended in a 2-all tie.
Miller scored twice in a 1:33 span early in the second for a 4-2 Wildcats advantage. Kyle Thomas tallied 37 seconds later to trim the Mars deficit to 4-3.
Koster completed the hat-trick on a breakaway backhander with 3:15 remaining in the period to restore Kittanning’s two-goal lead, 5-3.
The Wildcats killed off three penalties in the third to help seal the victory.
“We played our game, finally. I think we all came together in this game,” Grafton said. “In the third period, we told our players to protect the house and I think Mars only had seven shots against us. I couldn’t be happier. We have Thomas Jefferson on Thursday and we have to keep playing well.”
Mars, coming off a key 6-2 win over Serra Catholic on Monday, was shorthanded against Kittanning. Ian Houk-Graves, Maxwell Master, Jonathan Kowalkowski, Beau Heakins and goaltender Christian Knapp did not play Tuesday night.
“The first period, I thought we were right there. I was happy with the way the guys played,” Mars coach Steve Meyers said. “Playing back to back nights and outshooting both teams convincingly is a good sign. We just made a couple mental mistakes that hurt us.”
The Planets return to the ice next Thursday for a huge battle with defending Penguins Cup champion Quaker Valley, which won the Pennsylvania Cup as well.
“That team is deep. They lost some important players from last year, but they are still good,” Meyers said, “They are going to be very good all year. We have to play a perfect game to try to compete with them.”