If it’s February, and the NCDC playoffs begin in March, then that must mean - we’re in the good old “stretch drive”!
It’s always fun when the playoffs are within sight and teams are either jockeying for playoff seeds or simply for an actual playoff spot.
The first weekend of February saw just one team - the mighty New Jersey Hitmen - holding an official playoff spot. The Hitmen earned the sweep they were looking for against fellow top four team the Connecticut Jr. Rangers.
In addition, two other teams - the Boston Bandits and Northern Cyclones - also secured weekend sweeps to leapfrog the Rangers into fourth and fifth place, respectively.
Additionally, the Syracuse Jr. Stars picked up two wins from their trip to face the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders. With those wins, the Stars pulled themselves back into eighth place after moving between eighth and ninth for most of this season.
Stars are big and bright
Head coach Paul Kelly has his team standing with the third best record since Dec. 1 in the entire NCDC, going 10-2-0-0 stretching back to Dec. 1.
The Stars hit the road last weekend to Long Island and got into a couple track meets with the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders, winning both by scores of 8-7 and 6-3.
The wins were a sign that the Stars’ offense is picking up at the right time, since it was their second straight weekend of scoring in double digits over the course of two games. They scored 12 goals in their split weekend against the South Shore Kings Jan. 26-27. The Stars have hit double-digit scoring over three total two-game sets, all since December. They finished the 2018 portion of their schedule with 11 goals in two games against Rochester.
Defensemen Jeremy Gabriele and Gregory McGunigle each had five-point weekends. For McGunigle it was his most points in two straight games since he scored four in the mid-December Rochester series. Gabriele’s previous two-game high was three points in his final two games at the USPHL Winter Showcase Jan. 5-6.
New acquisition Seth Benson, recently picked up from the New Jersey Rockets, scored his first three goals as a Star in the two games against P.A.L.
Cyclones still roaring
The Cyclones have won three in a row with their sweep of the South Shore Kings.
The Cyclones are looking to get back to the hot streaks with which they started both December (5-0 before an OT loss) and January (5-0 before a regulation loss).
By out-scoring the Kings 8-4 over the two games, they evened out their goals differential to zero. In early November, when the team was struggling, they were at -26 and reduced that to -15 at the holiday break after their 5-0-1 December run.
Lukas Uhler had a three-point weekend against the Kings, and since he joined the Cyclones in December, he has only been kept off the scoresheet twice. He now has 21 points in 15 games.
Hitmen climbing the mountain again
The New Jersey Hitmen only played one game over the first weekend of February, earning a 5-2 win over the Connecticut Jr. Rangers.
That win put the Hitmen on a three-game winning streak. The last time they were on a 3-0 run was Nov. 4, and they followed that with 15 more victories before the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs ended their 19-game winning streak on Jan. 25.
If the Hitmen go up 1-0 in their next game, they will reach a +100 goal differential on the season. Their current +99 is 50 goals higher than their nearest competition in that statistic.
Bandits make push for home ice
After months at fifth place, the Bandits moved into fourth on the strength of a sweep against the Boston Junior Bruins, winning a pair of close games, 3-2 and 2-1.
The one-goal games have largely worked out great for the Bandits this season. They thrive on the drama, going 6-2-3-2 in one-goal games. They haven’t lost a one-goal game in regulation since Nov. 3 against the Hitmen (2-1), losing only one other time to the South Shore Kings on Sept. 21 (3-2).
The Bandits didn’t need extra time for either win, but no team has gone beyond 60 minutes more, as they are 4-2 in OT and 0-3 in the shootout for a total of nine times beyond 60. The New Jersey Rockets are a close second at 4-3 in OT and 1-0 in the shootout for eight times playing extra hockey.
Jack Brackett scored both goals for the Bandits on Saturday as the Bandits came back from being down 1-0. That’s no surprise, as Brackett is tied with the Rangers’ Brad Ong for most game-winning goals in the league at five.
Elsewhere around the league
The New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs have earned points in four of their last five games, earning a 4-2 win against the Islanders Hockey Club on Saturday, followed by a 6-5 shootout loss to the same Islanders on Sunday. No team has made it to the shootout as much as the Monarchs this season, and they’re hoping to improve on their points output in that department, going 1-3.
The Islanders are 7-3 in their last 10, their best 10-game performance of the season so far.
The Rochester Jr. Monarchs and New Jersey Rockets also split a weekend, though the Rockets brought three points away from the two meetings. The Rockets won 6-4 on Saturday, and the Monarchs won 5-4 in overtime on Sunday. With the latter win, the Monarchs moved into a three-place tie at 10th place with the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders and South Shore Kings.
All three teams entered this week 11 points out of ninth and 13 points away from the eighth and final playoff spot. The Jr. Islanders have three games in hand on Rochester and the Kings have two, but none of the three teams are eliminated from contention as of yet.
The Rockets are in a non-playoff spot for the first time this season after a weekend series with their OT defeat.