This article should be up on thepiha.com soon enough. Until then, here it is.
It has been a tumultuous season in the PIHA, a season that started 8 months again when the first exhibition game of the year was played between Feasterville Fury and New Jersey Stampede. Since then, hundreds and hundreds of games have been played and the 42 teams who started the year have been reduced to just 2. After battling through a 32 game regular season schedule before winning regional playoffs and moving on to defeat 2 tough teams at their respective conference finals, the Connecticut Blaze and the Phoenix Dragons are the only teams remaining. This coming weekend, these 2 teams will fight in a best of 7 series for the right to hoist the Founder's Cup and call themselves PIHA champions.
Without a doubt, this season's league final is the tale of two very different teams. The Blaze are an experienced team, boasting 7 players who were a part of last year's PIHA champions: Boston Roller Rats. The Dragons are a young team, boasting an average age of 21 years old, in their first season in the league. The difference in experience is highlighted in the differece in age of the starting goalies. Blaze goaltender Roger Lee is 37 years old. Dragons goaltender Cody O'Reilly is 21 years old.
But there is more to this matchup than difference in age. Both teams boast an unstoppable sniper at the top of their lineup. For Connecticut, it's John Pinheiro. For Phoenix, it's Josh Laricchia. Neither Pinheiro nor Laricchia can truly be stopped but both teams will be looking to slow them down when they hit the floor this weekend in Colorado Springs. Pinheiro is a legend in the league, putting up huge numbers, highlight reel goals, and championship banners for years. Pinheiro won back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006 with Philadelphia Growl before coming to play for Connecticut last year. The move worked out and Pinheiro helped the Blaze knock off the Growl in divisional playoffs, before bowing out in the next round 2 games to 1 against the eventual champion Roller Rats. Laricchia has no history in the league but has made a name for himself in one short season already. In only 26 games this year, Laricchia posted 44 goals and 57 assists for an unreal 101 points to go with a league-best 9 game winning goals, placing him at the top of all major offensive categories. Again, neither of these players can really be stopped. You can only hope to contain them.
Both teams, however, do not rely solely on one superstar to carry them to victory. For the Blaze, Pinheiro's goalscoring onslaught is fueled by the playmaking abilities of Jeff Goulet. Goulet leads Connecticut in assists this year with 57 in 29 games and was also the leading set-up man last year for the champion Roller Rats. Beyond Pinheiro and Goulet, the Blaze boast 5 more players with 10 or more goals this season including Tony Silvestri and Mario Lucibello. Defensively, the Blaze are headed up by 6'3" Jay McGeown and 6'4" Jimmy Dehm. In net, Blaze are backstopped by Lee, a PIHA champion with Boston and a proven winner in the league.
For Phoenix, the lineup behind Laricchia is deep. Dragons' have a league-high four players who reached the 20-goal plateau this season. Tyler Koressel and Danny Marmorstein both had more than 30 goals for Phoenix while Marmorstein also notched more than 50 assists. The offense also gets clutch contributions from Duane Jones, who had 28 goals this year, and Josh Joles, who had 10 goals, 3 of which were game winners. Defensively, Dragons are backed by Justin Maroon and Alex Dodt. Maroon also showed his ability to contribute offensively with 2 huge goals in the Dragons' series clinching victory over Southside Snipers in the Western Conference final. The ability of the Dragons to get scoring from all angles was shown in their Game 2 win over Southside, in which all 8 Dragons players contributed a goal. Between the pipes, O'Reilly calmly backs up the deadly Dragons offense. He is also known to contribute to the attack as his 8 points this season led all PIHA goalies.
Both of these teams have come down a long road to get to this point. Connecticut began the season as a favorite to win the East and they did not disappoint. The Blaze compiled an incredible 28-2-2 regular season record, good enough for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the third-best record in all of PIHA. In divisional playoffs, Connecticut swept Massachusetts Bombers in the semifinal then earned a hard-fought division title with a 2 games to 1 series victory over Long Island 495ers. Moving onto the conference playoffs in Waldorf, MD, the Blaze came out on fire by sweeping a very talented South Carolina Pirates team in the semifinal. In the Eastern Conference final it would be a titanic rematch between Connecticut and Philadelphia Growl. The best of 5 series went back and forth, back and forth, stretching to the limit before Connecticut knocked off the Growl in Game 5, for the second straight season.
Phoenix led the brand new Southwest Division all year long, finishing with a 26-6-0 record. In the divisional final, the Dragons ousted Tucson Desperados handily, sweeping the best of 3 series to clinch the division title. In San Jose, CA, Dragons came up against the upstart Northern California Mustangs, fresh off an upset victory in their divisional playoffs. Playing in front of a loud home crowd, the Mustangs pushed the Dragons to the brink of elimination but Phoenix came out on top 2 games to 1. In the conference final, the Dragons surprised everyone by jumping all over the defending conference champion Snipers, winning the first 2 games of the series by a combined score of 14-5. After a few overtime battles on day two, Phoenix came out on top 3 games to 1 over Southside to punch their ticket to Colorado Springs.
So now the table is set. Experience versus youth, the well-known favorite versus the expansion-team underdog. However you may bill this matchup, it will surely be an incredible series. This weekend a new champion will be crowned in the PIHA. Will it be the Connecticut Blaze? Or will it be the Phoenix Dragons?