NEVILLE TWP — The month of March signifies different things to different people.
For some, it means filling out college basketball brackets and keeping their fingers crossed. For others, it's a time for green beer and the Luck of the Irish.
For the Mars varsity hockey program, March means playing in the Penguins Cup championship game. An early goal by Westmont Hilltop was not going to change that.
After falling behind just 18 seconds into the Class A semifinal game, the Planets tallied four straight goals in a 4-1 win Monday evening at Robert Morris University's Island Sports Center.
The victory sends the Planets (19-3-1) to their sixth straight title game appearance. They will face Quaker Valley, a 4-1 winner over Kittanning, at 5 p.m. March 20 at Consol Energy Center in a rematch of last year's championship.
Westmont Hilltop grabbed the early lead Monday when Brian Yost's pass from behind Mars' net bounced off the leg of teammate J.J. Cavrak.
“It was a fluky one,” said Westmont coach Art McQuillan. “But we beat (Mars) to the puck and outworked them. When you do that, good things happen.”
“Giving up an early goal does not shake my confidence,” said Mars goalie Christian Knapp, “especially when it's a fluke like that goal was tonight. There's not much you can do about it. You just have to forget it.”
Knapp did just that, stopping the 16 other shots he faced in the game.
It was up to his teammates to find the net and extend the team's season.
Reed Salada and Mike McCann scored the equalizer and go-ahead goal, respectively, just one minute and 46 seconds apart early in the second period.
Salada's tally came 50 seconds into a power play. Max Master and Ed Schwadron were credited with an assist.
Soon after, McCann took a pass from Beau Heakins just inside the blue line and sent a slapshot whizzing toward Hilltopper goalie Sebastian Ragno. The puck was deflected by the netminder's glove, but tucked itself in the upper-right corner of the net for a 2-1 lead.
Salada and McCann, both defensemen, had scored just once this season entering Monday's game.
“It's always a plus when you can get goals from the defense,” said Mars coach Steve Meyers. “Those two scores lifted the spirits of the rest of the team.
“Westmont had the momentum early, but we picked up our play starting in the second period,” Meyers added. “From that point on, I thought we controlled the game.”
Mars carried the one-goal lead into the final period, during which the Hilltoppers (15-8-1) earned a pair of power plays, both two-minute minors called against the Planets.
The first began with 9:11 remaining in the game. Westmont, which had managed little offense on its three previous power plays in the game, came alive and forced Knapp to make three saves, which he did without error.
The Hilltoppers then took a 5-on-4 advantage with 4:55 left and Knapp stopped the two shots he faced in that sequence.
“Those penalty kills were very big,” said Meyers. “We work on that stuff a lot in practice.”
Schwadron and Master both scored an insurance goal late in the game, with assists going to Nick Berteotti and Ian Houk-Graves, respectively.
While pleased with the win, Knapp knows the victory simply moves the Planets one step closer to their ultimate goal.
“I'm not savoring this moment as much as I did last year's semifinal win,” he said. “We ended up losing to Quaker Valley (4-2) in the finals last season. Now we're back and we want to win it.”
Ragno made 20 saves for the Hilltoppers.