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Feisty Strath Haven nearly punishes overeager East

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WEST GOSHEN >> West Chester Rustin fans chanted “We want East” following their Flyers Cup Class A semifinal win over Hershey. West Chester East fans, a little more than an hour later, belted out “We want Rustin” during their own semifinal against Strath Haven.

Both schools will get their wish, thanks to the No. 2 Vikings’ 5-3 victory against the No. 6 Panthers at Ice Line.

Up one with less than a minute to play, Dylan McLaughlin picked up a loose puck at his defensive blue line and had the length of the rink with an empty net in front of him to seal a spot in the championship game. The Golden Knights were on his mind.

West Chester East captain Dylan McLaughlin celebrates his empty-net goal that iced a 5-3 win over Strath Haven in the Flyers Cup A semifinals Monday. (For Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“I started thinking about next game pretty fast,” McLaughlin said. “Tensions are going to be high.”

There was relief and jubilation in the East celebration following McLaughlin’s goal, his second of the night. Part of it was the Vikings’ next opponent. A lot of was their opponent Monday. East fans started the chants, and Haven’s players heard them.

“It gives us more motivation,” said Panthers defenseman Blayden Reid. “To hear fans talking about the next game pumps you up.”

Meanwhile, Vikings coach Eric Wolf struggled to keep his players’ thoughts away from a certain rival.

“With difficulty,” he said. “It’s hard when you already know who’s through. It’s hard on the kids, especially after last year.”

Rustin defeated East in four overtimes in 2017 to collect a fourth consecutive Flyers Cup. Those types of losses don’t go away. And with a 3-1 lead after two and a 25-13 advantage in shots on goal against Strath Haven, the Vikings may have cast a few glances to Wednesday.

That slight lapse allowed the Panthers to pounce. With the help of an ice cut, Haven regrouped to dominate the third period. Reid buried a shot off the post to cut the lead to 3-2 for his second of the night. When Sean Heard restored the hosts’ two-goal lead, the Panthers answered again. Mike Irey turned and fired a high wrist shot that deflected off a Vikings’ stick and into the net to cut it to 4-3.

What followed was a frantic close that saw Strath Haven get four high-quality chances at an equalizer. Liam Carney just missed. So did Ryan Spanier.

On the other side, East netminder Joey Galitski turned everything away. He made three saves in the first period and 11 in third.

“He was huge,” McLaughlin said. “Joey kind of stood on his head there.”

Now comes the challenging part, the wait.

“After last year, I’ll be pretty anxious for the next two days,” said McLaughlin. “It’s going to be intense.”

Strath Haven’s Mike Irey scored a third-period goal as part of the Panthers’ comeback attempt, but they fell to West Chester East, 5-3, in the Flyers Cup Class A semifinal Monday. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

The Vikings can be accused of thinking ahead to Rustin, who they’ll face off with at 6:30 PM at Ice Line on Wednesday, but they didn’t overlook the Panthers by any means. Perhaps spurred on by the Knights’ effort, East fired 16 shots on Lukas Bernaus in the first period. He was outstanding, especially on a penalty kill where he made three saves in quick succession. McLaughlin was on the wrong side of a few of them.

“They’re a talented team,” Bernaus said. “It was just like what I prepared for.”

“It helps us a lot,” Reid said of his goaltender’s play. “We play four defensemen, so it’s good to know he has our back.”

McLaughlin finally solved Bernaus 37 seconds into the second period when he poked home rebound. Nick Donnelly followed with a one-timer from the slot to make it 2-0. When Nick Castura beat Bernaus high glove for 3-0, the chants kicked up.

Then again, so did Strath Haven. Reid scored on the power play to close the frame and put everyone’s dream rematch on hold. But the Panthers came up just short. With a loaded junior class, including Reid and Bernaus, they’ll use the narrow defeat as a learning experience.

“It sucks to lose, but next year is it,” said Bernaus. “Everyone will be a year older.”

As for East, the Vikings get what they wanted: If not a chance to rewrite a history, then one to write their own.

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