WORCESTER, MA - Once again the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) Premier Division championship game will have a distinct Southeast flavor.
Two years ago, the division title went to the Hampton Roads Whalers and last season it was the Charlotte Rush outlasting Carolina for the title.
The Whalers and Rush both punched a return ticket on Friday (March 9) winning their respective semi-finals as the Premier Division Championship tournament at the Worcester Ice Center.
The Whalers got a stellar effort from goaltender Sean Dickson, 19, from Millbrae, CA o pull out a 2-1 win in its semi despite being outshot by the North Division Champion Islanders Hockey Club by a 40-28 margin.
In the other semi, the defending champion Rush scored twice in the final 20 minutes to pull away from the Minnesota Moose for a 5-2 win.
Whalers 2 Islanders 1
The Whalers and Isles opened its game with a rarity – a stats-free opening period with neither team scoring or assessed a penalty.
Jason Bilski, 20, from Pittsburgh, PA finally made the statistician pick up their pen with his goal putting the Islanders on the board 3:25 into the middle frame and that stood up until Brandon Osmundson, 19, from Chesapeake, VA responded for the Whalers about nine minutes later.
Kirill Romanov, 20, from Moscow, Russia gave the Whalers its first and only lead with his goal scored at the 8:02 mark of the third period and that stood up as the game winner.
Dickson handled 39 shots to earn the win while Michal Soustal, 21, from Czech Republic handling 26 of 28 in goal for the Isles.
Rush 5 Moose 2
Perhaps the two most impressive teams heading into the Championship event, the Moose suffered a big stumble in the pool play portion, dropping a 7-1 decision to the New Jersey Rockets and while they managed to get back on track, that loss ended up seeding them at the bottom of the four-team group and forced the semi-final match with the defending champs.
The Rush needed just 14 seconds to get on the board in this one, Tyler Barrow, 20, from Massapequa, NY ripping the first one home.
Matteo Menotti, 18, from Chicago, IL responded just 2:20 later for the Moose, but the Rush moved back into the lead with 8:11 to go in the period with a goal from Bailey Conklin, 19, from Malone, NY.
Co-Captain Riley Keays, 20, from Brookfield, WI pulled the Moose even again just past the hallway mark of the second period, but Blake Bennett, 19, from Grand Island put the Rush in front to stay 3:40 from the second period buzzer.
Justin Geary, 19, from Halfmoon, PA padded the Rush margin with 6:02 to play in the contest and an empty netter scored by Anthony Yurkins, 20, from Staten Island, NY triggered the celebration.
Sam Best, 19, from Woburn, MA stopped 41 of 43 to celebrate the win for the Rush, Bronson Moore, 20, from Tri-Cities, WA stopping 29 in goal for the Moose.
Championship rivals familiar
The Championship game will be yet another rematch between the Rush and Whalers from the Southeast Division.
The Rush put together a 40-2-2 record through the regular season and finished 21 points clear of the second place Whalers. Both teams have added a half dozen wins to their respective totals with no losses in the post season. The two teams squared off six times through the regular season, the Rush winning five of them, but the Whalers are one of only two teams to defeat the Rush in regulation time.
Puck drops at 4 pm (EST) at the Worcester Ice Center.