Greater Latrobe’s hockey team could’ve had plenty of excuses had it lost on Thursday night against Hempfield Area.

With the PIHL Class AA Southeast Division title already clinched, the IceCats had little to gain with a win, whereas the Spartans are in the thick of a battle for a playoff spot.

Additionally, the IceCats were without arguably their two best players — All-Stars Alex Walker and Lane Ruffner — because of their travel hockey obligations. For a team that seeks greatness, however, the IceCats overcame those factors, and claimed a 5-3 win against the Spartans at Kirk Nevin Arena in Greensburg.

Greater Latrobe head coach Josh Werner appreciated his team’s performance, as he reiterated a question he recently posed.

“What’s the difference between a good team and a great team? The good team just comes and plays to their competition. Great just doesn’t matter, they go out and give their best effort every single night, no matter the opponent,” Werner stated.

The IceCats (15-1-1, 31 points) certainly looked like a great team in the opening period on Thursday, as they scored the first four goals.

Playing as the “road” team, Greater Latrobe struck less than two minutes in, as Cole Ferri tallied his league-leading 24th goal on a shot from a sharp angle on the right side. Minutes later, Ferri found the back of the net again, as he unleashed a laser-like wrister past Hempfield Area’s Joe Behler, a shorthanded goal that made it 2-0.

Colton McCutcheon extended the IceCats’ lead in the opening period when he scored from the left circle just seconds after an offensive zone faceoff. GL added a fourth goal in the frame, when Ferri dished a beautiful feed across the ice to Alex Schall, who was uncovered on a backdoor for the tap-in.

The period proved that the IceCats were motivated and focused from the opening faceoff.

“It was a good start for us. It was nice that the boys were ready to go,” Werner stated.

“We knew it was a big game for Hempfield. It was a big game for us, too. We’re preparing for playoffs and how we want to play then.”

The second period was just the opposite, however, as the Spartans (9-7-0, 18 points) took control of the play and scored three straight goals.

Christian Konieczka put Hempfield Area on the board less than three minutes in, and Zach Ridilla followed with another marker just 44 seconds later to make it 4-2.

Konieczka struck again a few minutes later, as he made a spectacular play. Coming down the right wing, Konieczka beat an IceCats’ defender to create a partial breakaway, and then went from his forehand to backhand to beat GL goaltender Vinny Amatucci.

The Spartans nearly pulled even on several occasions, including two glorious chances with the man advantage, but the ’Cats fended off the rally and took a one-goal lead into the locker room for intermission.

Clinging to that lead to start the third period, the IceCats received a crucial insurance tally by unusual circumstances.

Forward Josh Martino chipped the puck past a Spartans’ player, who subsequently lost his stick. As a result, Martino gained possession in the corner and he shoved the puck from there toward the goal. The puck pinballed around, and ultimately crossed the goal-line, with the tally credited to Jarred Stein.

From Werner’s perspective, that fortuitous bounce made up for a controversial play in the opening period when Greater Latrobe’s J.D. Robinson appeared to score, but the official was initially out of position and deemed it no goal despite the puck sitting across the line when the play was halted.

Staked to a 5-3 edge, the IceCats clamped down defensively, even without Ruffner, who was recently named the PIHL Class AA Player of the Month. In his place, seniors Darick Hrtyanski, Ean LaMolinara, and Nick Byrd, as well as junior Dalton Lute and freshmen Jack Beddick and Fletcher Harvey, all took on expanded roles.

“Lane’s such a dynamic player and we’re very lucky to have him on our team, but it’s a core group back there, and one if guy’s not there, then everyone needs to step it up a little bit,” Werner detailed. “The group back there was lights out.”

Ferri put the finishing touches on the victory, as he completed his hat-trick with a one-timer with 1:46 left. Ferri posted a four-point night that was even more impressive without his linemate Walker.

“We need our leaders to step up, and him being the assistant captain, he knew what he needed to do, and he went out there and did it,” Werner said of his senior.

Schall, Stein, Martino and J.S. Florek each contributed two-point efforts while Amatucci registered 28 saves in net.

In the defeat, Konieczka paced the Spartans with two goals and an assist while Matt Traczynski added two assists.

Greater Latrobe has just one regular-season contest remaining, at home against Franklin Regional on Feb. 24 (8:35 p.m., Kirk Nevin).

With the Spartans and Panthers tied for second place with 18 points, it is likely that final contest will be crucial for Franklin Regional. If that is the case, Werner believes his team will once again match the intensity and urgency of the opposition.

“That’s just got to be our mentality. We want to win at all costs,” he said.

“It’s always a fun atmosphere, whether we’re playing Hempfield or Franklin. They’re both definitely are rivals of ours, and we look forward to those games.”

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