KITTANNING — The Mars offense gets a lot of credit, but the defense has been the true backbone of the team.
Case in point, Thursday’s PIHL Class A hockey contest against Freeport.
The Planets killed off back-to-back penalties in the second period that allowed the Yellowjackets a chance at a three-and-a-half minute power play, then a two-man advantage for 1:19 in the third period — both of which the Planets were able to neutralize.
On the offensive side, Mars’ offense netted a goal in each period, then withstood a late Yellowjackets rally to pull out 3-2 victory at the Belmont Ice Complex.
Clearly, the defense set the tone for the game.
“We work exclusively on special team in practice,” Mars coach Steve Meyers said. “That kill (in the third period) was big.”
“It’s been the same story all season,” said Freeport coach Dave Hepler. “We take too many penalties. We have the talent, but we don’t need the hooks, the grabs, the interference.
“It seems like we’re spending one period of the game killing penalties,” Hepler added.
Mars (13-2-1) jumped out to an early 1-0 lead when Nick Makozy used passes from Noah Master and Nick Berteotti to score just 4:33 into the game.
The Planets had 17 seconds on a power play when a hooking penalty on Craig Mazzotta (hooking) gave the Yellowjackets an upcoming power-play opportunity.
With 10 seconds left on the Yellowjackets’ chance, Mars’ Max Master was called for boarding, but the Planets deftly cleared away any pucks that came in the vicinity.
Mars doubled its lead later in the period when Mazzotta buried a loose puck past Freeport goalie Matt Huston with 3:29 left.
Huston had blocked a Max Master shot and the puck deflected in front of the net. Mazzotta swooped in and scored.
Mars continued to ride the momentum when Makozy scored just 1:40 into the third period to give the squad a 3-0 advantage.
However, after killing off the two-man advantage shortly thereafter, the Yellowjackets started to pull themselves back into the game.
Nick Zidek took a pass from Justin Drzemiecki and scored past Mars goalie Christian Knapp with 7:44 to play.
“We fought really hard tonight,” Meyers said. “Losing Ian Houk-Graves didn’t help in the second period. He had to leave and play with his club team ... We had to put (leading scorer) Mazzotta back on defense. It’s nice to know we can stick anyone back there and they’ll do a good job.”
Zidek added another goal — this time off a helper from Devin Christy — with 1:04 to play.
Freeport did get a final power-play chance with nine seconds left, but Mazzotta accepted the face-off pass and dumped the puck down the other end of the ice to close out the game.
Notes: Knapp finished with 23 saves; Huston had 25 ... The Planets had defeated the Yellowjackets 4-1 on Jan. 9 at Penguins Pond ... Next up, Freeport will play Westmont Hilltop Thursday at Belmont Complex while Mars will play Thomas Jefferson next Friday at Bethel Park BladeRunners.