MARLBOROUGH, MA -- The United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) Premier League has whittled its field of 44 teams spread across six geographic divisions to a final dozen that will begin their final battles at the New England Sports Center.
The final group includes players representing 32 states as well as 17 other countries from four different continents. They will compete in four three-team pools, each team playing its pool opponents as well as one crossover game. All 12 teams will begin play on Wednesday (March 7) and wrap up pool play Thursday with two more games each.
The four division champions will move into semi-final games Friday which will determine the two finalists to settle the league championship at 12:10 p.m. (EST) on Saturday with one final battle.
Here is a quick look at which teams are taking part in the season-ending championship tournament.
GOLD A BRACKET
All Times are EST
Chicago Cougars -- (Midwest-East Regular season champions – 30-11-2).
The Cougars dominated its division this season, earning a first round bye in the post season before earning a sweep last weekend against the Decatur Blaze to punch its ticket to Nationals.
Cougars will begin play at 1:10 pm against the New Jersey Rockets on Wednesday and then go against the Hampton Roads Whalers at 9:30 am on Thursday, wrapping up its division play with a cross-over match against the Northern Cyclones at 8:10 pm the same night.
New Jersey Rockets – (Mid-Atlantic Division Regular season champions – 35-5-4)
The Rockets led from start to finish in the Mid-Atlantic Division, claiming the regular season title with 13 points to spare. The Hartford Jr. Wolfpack put up a fight in the opening round of the post season, but the Rockets advanced in three games before moving into the National tournament with a second-round sweep of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers.
After opening with a game against the Chicago Cougars at 1:10 pm Wednesday the Rockets will go outside of the division to face the Minnesota Moose at 9:30 am Thursday, wrapping up division play at 8 pm that night against the Hampton Roads Whalers
Hampton Roads Whalers – (Second in Southeast Division 30-13-1)
The Whalers played in a tough division this season with five of the six teams finishing over .500, due in part to dominance at the Showcase tournaments.
The Whalers needed just one series win, but it was a tough one, the Whalers moving through with a sweep of the Carolina Eagles.
The Whalers start off on Wednesday with a 2 pm match against the Tampa Bay Juniors, then play a pair of division matches Thursday, playing the Chicago Cougars at 9:30 am and finishing with the New Jersey Rockets at 8 pm.
GOLD B BRACKET
All Times are EST
Tampa Bay Juniors -- (Florida Division Regular Season Champs 30-13-1).
The Juniors battled the Florida Eels down the stretch and ultimately held on for a five-point edge for the regular season title. In the post season, the Florida and Southeast Divisions battled together, but the Juniors drew its own division rival, Florida Junior Blades in the opening round, sweeping the Best of Three series in two games to move into the National tournament.
The Juniors start the tournament at 2 p.m. Wednesday with a crossover match against the Hampton Roads Whalers, then meet division opponents on Thursday with an 11:10 am meeting with the Northern Cyclones followed by 7:20 pm tilt against the Minnesota Moose.
Northern Cyclones – (25-16-3 Sixth Place, North Division)
The Cyclones are a testament that regular season positioning means little once the ‘second season kicks off. While the Cyclones finished sixth overall, the team was also just nine points away from the Syracuse Stars who it squared off with in the first round, taking the series to the limit and then pulling off the upset.
That set up a second-round series against the Division champion New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and the Cyclones proved it still had some more playoff magic left, grabbing another win in thrilling three game series to earn its way to the National Championship event.
After opening the tournament Wednesday with a 3:20 pm start against the Minnesota Moose and then the Tampa Bay Juniors with a faceoff scheduled for 11:10 am Thursday. The Cyclones will play its crossover game at 8:10 pm against the Chicago Cougars Thursday night.
Minnesota Moose – (Midwest-West Division Champions – 37-5-2)
The Moose has been almost unbeatable since Christmas and wrapped up the regular season with a 10-game winning streak to wrap up the title with nine points to spare. The Moose continued its run in the post season, first eliminating the Dells Ducks in two straight before moving on to the second round where it eliminated the Minnesota Mullets in two games as well.
The red-hot Moose will open play Wednesday with a 3:20 pm game against the Northern Cyclones and then returns Thursday, moving outside of its division to play the New Jersey Rockets at 9:30 am and finishing division play with a 7:20 pm meeting with the Tampa Bay Juniors.
Black A BRACKET
All Times are EST
Charlotte Rush -- (Southeast Division Champs 40-2-2).
The defending Premier Division champions were a dominant force all season long and enter this event as perhaps the favorite to do it all again.
In a division that included several top-notch teams, the Rush still managed to wrap up the title with a 19-point edge. In its only post season series, the Rush dispatched the Richmond Generals in two straight to make a triumphant return to Nationals.
The Rush begins play here Wednesday with a 12:50 pm meeting against the Florida Eels, getting its crossover game out of the way before playing a pair of division games Thursday against the Motor City Hawks at 9 am and the Jersey Hitmen at 5:40 pm.
Jersey Hitmen – (25-16-3 Third Place in Mid-Atlantic Division)
The Hitmen wrapped up third spot in this tough division and drew the sixth place Connecticut Nighthawks in the opening round, advancing to the second round with a sweep.
A first round upset left the Hitmen as the favorite as it took on the fourth place New York Aviators in the second round, moving on to Nationals with another series sweep.
The Hitmen begins play at the tournament with a 12:50 pm meeting with the Motor City Hawks on Wednesday, continuing Thursday with a crossover game against the Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings at 9 am following by its division finale against the Charlotte Rush at 5:40 pm.
Motor City Hawks – (20-22-2, Second place Midwest-East Division)
If you are a glass half empty person, you look at the sub .500 record the Motor City Hawks carry into Nationals and realize the team is a longshot, playing in a tough pool.
But if you are glass half full, you note the team has turned in an awesome second half to the season, including a 12-game winning streak that came to an end in the penultimate game of the regular season.
The Hawks needed just one series win but it was a doozy as they outlasted its Motown rival, the Detroit Fighting Irish. After dropping the series opener in overtime, the Hawks battled back with an overtime win of its own in game two and finally, a goal inside of the final two minutes of game three to get the invite to Nationals.
The Hawks begin play at 12:50 pm Wednesday against the Jersey Hitmen, then return on Thursday for a 9 am battle with the Charlotte Rush, wrapping up play outside of its division against the Islanders Hockey Club at 8 pm. Thursday night.
Black B BRACKET
All Times are EST
Islanders HC -- (29-9-6, Second Place, North Division).
The Islanders wrapped up play in the North Division, seven points behind the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and just two up on third place Syracuse Stars.
After dropping its first playoff game against the seventh place Springfield Pics, the Isles stormed back to tie and then win the Best of Three set. The Islanders were pushed to the limit again in the second round, battling through three tough games to ultimately move past the South Shore Kings and earn a spot at the National event.
The Islanders will begin play on Wednesday with a 1 pm game against the Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings and returns on Thursday with a 9:30 am game against the Florida Eels before wrapping up play with a crossover battle against the Motor City Hawks at 8 pm. Thursday night against the Motor City Hawks.
Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings – (33-10-0. Second Place, Midwest-West Division)
The Riverkings are another team that turned it up after Christmas and as a result slid from third, to second in the Midwest-West Division, edging the Minnesota Blue Ox by two points at the wire while trailing division champion Minnesota Moose by nine.
After moving past the seventh place Ironwood Yoopers in the opening round, the Riverkings advanced to the second round against the Blue Ox. Another two-game sweep against its rival gave the Riverkings its second straight ticket to league championship event.
The Riverkings will face the Islanders HC in a 1 pm match on Wednesday and plays its crossover match against the Jersey Hitmen at 9 am on Thursday before wrapping up division play at 6:10 p.m. the same day against the Florida Eels.
Florida Eels – (27-15-2, Second place Florida Division)
The Eels took turns with the Tampa Bay Jrs. in the penthouse of the Florida Division, but in the end, it was the Jrs. taking the spot with a slim five-point margin over the Eels.
In the post season, the Eels faced the Palm Beach Hawks and were pushed to the limit before finally taking the series in three games and moving on to the National tournament.
Eels will start on Wednesday with a 12:50 pm game against the Charlotte Rush before moving into division matches on Thursday, against the Islanders HC at 9:30 am and then wrapping up at 6:10 pm against the Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings.