York, PA - Central York couldn't have envisioned a worst start when it hosted Hempfield with a shot to clinch the CPIHL Tier 1 regular season title: The Panthers found themselves down a pair of goals only two minutes into the contest.
Suddenly the team that gives up only 1.81 goals per game looked vulnerable.
However, Central hasn't held on to first place all season by chance, and the Panthers rallied with seven unanswered goals on the way to a 7-2 victory over the Black Knights.
The win wrapped up the season title for unbeaten Central (15-0-2), which has 32 points with only one game remaining.
After yielding two goals on the first two shots by Knights senior Kyle Long, Panther goalie Tallen Stroman made a huge glove save from point-blank range, providing an instant spark for his teammates.
"That was a big momentum changer, even though it doesn't seem like it now," Central captain Kenny Gross said. "At the moment, that was the best thing in the world for us. If we go down 3-0, that is tough to come back from."
Stroman said his approach was simple even after a Long scored on a breakaway 31 seconds into the game and 1:28 later knocked home a puck that jumped over the senior Stroman's stick as he was trying to cover it.
"You just have to think about the next shot. You can't think about what already happened," Stroman said. "Later tonight, I am going to look back on it and see what I did wrong. I did make a big save to get the team going, but they helped me out a lot after that."
Evan Malachosky got the Panthers on the board when his wrist shot from the point got past screened Hempfield keeper Wes Bagrowski with 10:24 left in the first. A minute and a half later, Adam Linker drilled in a rebound of Gross' shot, tying the game.
Gross put home the go-ahead marker by chipping in a loose puck with 4:23 left in the period, and 68 seconds later, James Mueller drove to the net with a rebound and stuffed it home for a 4-2 lead.
"We are on a good roll," Central coach Rick Lefever said. "I thought tonight the first period was a good test ... a good confidence builder to know we can come back on a good team. We haven't found ourselves in that position very often. I had confidence. We knew what we wanted to do, we knew our game plan."
Although held off the scoreboard in the middle period, the Panthers bombarded Bagrowski with 18 shots on goal, and the slanted ice continued over the final 15 minutes.
Nathaniel Troupe, Gross and Collin Potter added goals in the third, but Lefever was mostly pleased with the effort of his defense that limited the Knights to only 20 shots on goal, compared to Central's 45.
"We are not a high-power offensive team, although we score our share of goals," Lefever said. "Our strength is in our defense. We don't give enough credit to (C.J.) Belker, (Jared) Williamson, Malachosky, (Lucas) Marchesani, (Chris) Rizzuto and (Colton) Traynham. That is the core of our team."
The Panthers hope to ride that defense to a second consecutive Bears Cup championship
"They had a taste of the big stuff last year and they want it again," Lefever said. "As long as they stay focused and on an even keel, they will be fine."