Islanders-Hitmen ready for final battle
Dineen Cup Series starts Friday at Lawler Arena
By Jim den Hollander
It may be the end of the inaugural season for the USPHL’s National College Development Conference (NCDC), but it brings together a pair of teams that have a long history of battling for the Dineen Cup.
It’s a fitting battle to wrap up an awesome opening season for the division matching the nearly unbeatable Islanders Hockey Club and the Jersey Hitmen, a team that was never far off the pace, but morphed into a game winning machine thanks in part to some key personnel moves in the second half of the regular season campaign.
It’s not often a team that wrapped up the regular season with wins in 12 of its final 13 games will carry the ‘Underdog’ tag entering the league title, but teams like the Islanders Hockey Club don’t come along every season either. The Islanders wrapped up the regular season with a 47-3-0 record and have added two-game sweeps in both its quarter-final and semifinal post season series.
Those wins mean little heading into the post season of course and it’s worth noting the Boston Jr. Bruins also won all five regular season meetings with the Hitmen before being eliminated in a great three-game series against the same Hitmen last weekend.
Both coaches, Toby Harris of the Hitmen and Sean Tremblay of the Islanders are confident their teams are prepared and ready to head into the final series of the season.
Both are USPHL veteran coaches who have experienced championship seasons, most recently Tremblay who saw his Islanders hoist the Dineen Cup last season when it was the championship hardware for the Premier Division.
Many people refer to the playoffs as a second season, but for these teams it’s simply a continuation of the way they wrapped up the regular season. For Tremblay and the Islanders, the carry over goes even further back as the players who experienced last season’s championship run brought the winning attitude to camp with them this season.
“I was telling one of the guys earlier, when you’re 51-3, you don’t get to that point by being unprepared or taking days off,” said Coach Tremblay. “You get there by just being extremely diligent in your work ethic on and off the ice all year long. You know, you just don’t take days off.
“It starts with our staff that does a great job, being prepared and caring about our players, but the guys feed off it. We had a decent number of guys returning from last year’s champion and they just did a great job getting the new guys on the same page. We started strong and never stopped. If anything, thought we got better.”
The Islanders won all five meetings with the Hitmen this season beginning with a 3-1 win at New England Sports Center, Marlborough, MA in late Sept., followed up by a 4-2, 5-2 sweep of home games at Lawler, Arena, in late Oct. and finally a pair of January contests, 4-2 at the New England Sports Center and 4-1 at the Foxboro Sports Center.
Hayden Taylor, a native of Detroit, MI has enjoyed the meetings with the Hitmen picking up seven (4g, 3a) of his 22 points on the season in those matches while Jeremie Lavallee, from Montreal, QC has also picked up the same points total with a goal and six assists.
Jonathan Young, from Pelham, NH is another who has played a key role in these games with five (3g, 2a) of his 24 points on the season coming against the Islanders.
Coach Harris is no less pleased with his own team, but in the case of the Hitmen there was some tinkering with the lineup that ultimately helped the team turn its entire season around.
It’s no coincidence, said Harris that the team that sat fifth in league standings at one point near the Christmas Break made its late season charge to the regular season finish line right after some key personnel moves. The team scrapped its way back to a third-place finish with a season ending record of 34-15-1.
Three key trades brought defenseman Matthew Cousino (Connecticut Jr. Rangers) and forwards Austin Tonkovich (Rochester Monarchs) and Anthony Tzveyn (Syracuse Stars) to the team while goaltender Kristofer Carlson moved in from the United States Hockey League, strengthening the roster as well.
All four are 1997-born and the chemistry impact was immediate, said the coach, but he said the moves worked for the other teams as well.
“When we made the changes…we brought back three junior 20-year-old veteran Americans into the locker room. They knew how we wanted to play as an organization. What I will tell you is, the other players that went out the door, went to Rochester, Syracuse and Connecticut, they had great success with their teams too. So, I just believe that for the four teams that were involved in the trade, everybody benefited equally from the trades. Obviously, Connecticut, being the underdog, winning the first-round match up, Syracuse, giving the Bruins everything they could handle, you know winning that last game 1-0. You look at the top scorers on those teams and our team and I think it was just a much-needed change.”
The change in goal might be the biggest addition for the Hitmen though. Carlson has been next to unbeatable since joining the Hitmen. The one loss in those 13 final games for Jersey was against the Islanders, a 4-1 defeat against the Islanders, but Carlson has not yet had a shot between the pipes against the Isles but has put together a 13-2 record in games between the pipes so far this season.
Carlson will no likely go head to head with Islanders’ goaltender Justin Ferguson, a native of Hudson, NH who has picked up all five wins for the Islanders, including a couple of matches in which the Hitmen held the edge in the shots on goal department. Ferguson has turned aside a total of 158 shots and been beaten just eight times in those five contests.
Both teams are riding an awesome wave of success heading into this championship clash. The Hitmen have gained confidence with every game played since those key trades and while they have not yet defeated the Islanders this season, they were also 0-5 against the Bruins heading into last weekend.
“The guys I think, when they’ve had their back to the wall, they’ve really responded,” said Harris. “During the season when we were jockeying for position – at the time with South Shore and Connecticut, the team came together. When Northern Cyclones stung us in game two (of the playoff quarter-finals), the team really came together. When the Bruins beat us I game one, you know, facing elimination, the team really came together, so I know these guys are resilient, I know they’re hungry, I know that they believe they can win this championship. I know that if we can come into North Andover with a good game plan and execute that game plan, I think we’re going to be in a good situation.”
While the Hitmen are somewhat battle tested, engaging in a pair of three-game sets, Coach Tremblay said his team has faced its share of adversity as well and it has delivered when it had to.
“Toby and Jimmy (Hunt, team President and Director of Player Development) are good friends of mine and they are very well prepared every year,” said Tremblay. “I mean, these are certainly two very familiar faces going head to head. So, it should be a great series and a tremendous weekend of hockey for the NCDC. They’ve been on a good run, just as we have. It’s two heavyweights going head to head, it should be a lot of fun.
The adversity felt by the Islanders has been more in-game situations and for the most past the team has come through it with a high success rate.
“We had some games where we were trailing, like we had a series with the Bruins for example, where we were down by two goals, had to pull our goalie. We somehow stormed back and literally went end to end with eight seconds left and tied it and they won it in overtime. Two days later we were down two goals going into the third period. We scored three goals in the third period, the last with 2.3 seconds left to win 5-4.
“When we have faced what – for us – would be adversity, our guys have responded so its good for us to know.”
Tremblay said there was another game late in the season against the Cyclones when his team trailed late 4-1 and rallied back.
The Cyclones have faced an additional bit of adversity with some key injuries in the post season, including the loss of Jeff Losurdo, a native of Elmhurst, IL who led the league in scoring this season who went to the sidelines in the opening series with the Cyclones. His status for the championship series was unclear as of press time but the Cyclones would clearly be thrilled to get his potent scoring touch back in the lineup.
The series will kick off Friday (March 30) with a 6:30 pm (EDT) start. Game two will be played Saturday at 4 pm and if needed, a third game will go on Easter Sunday at 2pm. All games will take place at Merrimack/JT Lawler Arena.