UPDATE: The Highlanders' Kenny Dee scored first, but Baldwin lost, 5-1, to end its season.
Baldwin High School's varsity team stands four wins from a state championship, but the first one must come against Greensburg Salem High School in the opening round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL)'s Chiefs Cup playoffs this Sunday afternoon.
Baldwin (11-8-1) takes on the higher-seeded Golden Lions (15-4-1) on Sunday at the Kirk S. Nevin Arena in Greensburg at 4:30. The Lions are the No. 3 seed out of the eight schools that qualified for the Chiefs Cup playoffs. The Highlanders are No. 6.
"We're excited," said Joe Powell, Baldwin's first-year head coach and a 2005 Baldwin High grad. "We feel confident playing Greensburg. When they were probably the No. 1-ranked team, in the regular season, we went into their building last year, and beat them.
"So we're excited to be going back there for the playoffs. We feel good about that matchup.
"Our goaltender, Ryan Beermann, he gives us a chance to win every game, and when we have everybody clicking offensively and Beermann on his game, we're one of the top teams in the league I think."
Sunday's Greensburg tilt is actually a Chiefs Cup quarterfinal. Should Baldwin eventually win the Chiefs championship, which is competed for by teams in the PIHL Open Class' Sections 3 and 4, it would face the PIHL Nailers Cup champion—the best team from Sections 1 and 2—in the Open Cup state title game.
The Highlanders have been closer to the Open Cup before. A season ago, as a No. 2 seed and the Section 4 champion, Baldwin earned a 3-0 first-round playoffs win over Hollidaysburg Area High School before being bounced, 5-3, in the next round by nemesis Indiana Area High School—a team that beat Baldwin three times during the 2011-12 season and twice already this year.
Baldwin led Indiana, 3-2, in that 2012 playoffs game before its lead slipped away.
Indiana (17-2-1) finds itself in the 2013 postseason, as well, as the tournament's No. 2 seed, looming out there as a potential Highlanders opponent.
And while he would relish facing Indiana again, Powell said that his team is focused on the task at hand—getting past an impressive Greensburg team that finished first in the Open Class' Section 4.
"We're certainly not looking ahead," Powell said.
And that's for good reason. The Lions beat Baldwin, 7-5, on Dec. 13, but the Highlanders did tie them, 2-2, on Jan. 3.
The Highlanders trailed Greensburg, 3-0, in that December game, eventually tying the game up at 3 and at 4 before fading late. The 2-2 tie was the result of another Baldwin comeback in which the Highlanders spotted the Lions the game's first two goals before scoring the only second- and third-period markers.
Baldwin is feeling the losses of some key players this season—graduates Jesse Powell and Zachary Alaimo, among others. Powell, a forward, and Alaimo, a defenseman, were Baldwin's leading and third-leading points-getters, respectively, during the 2011-12 campaign.
But while last season's Highlanders had just three players hit double figures in goals, this season's squad is more balanced with five players notching at least 12—sophomore forwards Dakota Becker (20 goals, 16 assists) and , junior forward Anthony Alaimo (15 g, 18 a), sophomore forward Dylan Davey (14 g, 9 a) and sophomore defenseman Kenny Dee (12 g, 13 a).
A season ago, as freshmen, Becker and Brian Dee finished second and fourth on the Highlanders in points, respectively.
"I think we're a deeper team than we were last year," said Coach Powell, who was an assistant to former Head Coach Kevin Becker in 2011-12, "and when you build a team, that's how you look at it. We've had a lot of freshmen step over the past two years."
On the blue line, it's two of the team's older players—senior captain Jacob Naylor and junior Ryan Doran—whom Powell said have been Baldwin's top defensemen. And "probably the team MVP," Powell said, is Beermann, the senior keeper, who has factored into all 20 of Baldwin's decisions, picking up two shutouts while recording a 3.27 goals against average and an .844 saves percentage.
"He's just really escalated his game, especially in the big games," Powell said of Beermann. "In the 2-2 tie against Greensburg, he made a couple of unbelievable saves. In the outdoor game against Indiana, we lost that, 4-2, and they got an empty-netter at the end of the game, but he gave us an opportunity to win that game, certainly.
"He just plays big in big games."
The games won't get any bigger for Baldwin the rest of the way this season with each one being a one-and-done scenario.
"We're a young team, but most of them (Baldwin's players) had the experience of playing in the playoffs last year," Powell said. "They got that taste in their mouth. They know what it's like. They understand what is at stake.
"They sat in that locker room after we had a 3-2 lead against Indiana in the playoffs last year, so they know what that's like to be (one period) away from moving on.
"We definitely wanna get back there and have a different outcome."
The PIHL sponsors four levels of high school hockey, from Open Class up to AAA.
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