March 12, 2013

Juniors Journal: Four left to decide EJHL, AJHL titles

By Shawn Hutcheon

And then there were four. After enduring the regular season and playoff wars, two teams in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and two clubs in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League have survived and are ready for one more battle in order to claim their respective league championships.

In the AJHL, the Northern Cyclones of Hudson, N.H., won the regular season championship then swept their opponents in the quarterfinals (Philadelphia Jr. Flyers) and semifinals (New Jersey Rockets) to gain the privilege of competing for the President’s Trophy against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.

The Knights finished the season in fourth place, nine points behind the Cyclones, and advanced to the semifinals by sweeping the fifth-place Boston Jr. Rangers in the quarterfinals and did the same in an upset of third-place Connecticut Wolfpack.

In assessing the upcoming championship series, Cyclones head coach Bill Flanagan (Burlington, Mass.) will remind his team of the importance of staying out of the penalty box and concentrating on defensive hockey.

“[Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] have good forwards, good size and they have a very good power play so we’re going to have to be disciplined,” Flanagan said. “I think it will come down to goaltending and to us playing well without the puck. When we play well without the puck, we’re very tough to beat. What it will come down to is our best players against their best players and goaltending. They’re well coached. Justin (Lyle) has done a good job with them. I’m looking forward to it.”

Going into the series, Northern has three of the top four playoff scorers in Jurgen Koster, Brian Bowen (Littleton, Mass.) and Jonathan Felteau (Peabody, Mass.). Wilkes-Barre/Scranton counters with Jason Zaleski, Jack Ceglarski (Byfield, Mass.), and Alex Paolo (Hope, R.I.), who round out the top six in league playoff point producers.

The best-of-three series will commence at Cyclones Arena in Hudson, N.H., on Saturday at 6 p.m. with Game 2 on Sunday at 5:40 p.m. A third game, if necessary, will take place on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m.

The Eastern Junior Hockey League’s marquee matchup will see the Northern Division’s second-place finishers, the Islanders Hockey Club, meeting the regular season champion Jersey Hitmen.

Jersey enters the championship round of the Dineen Cup Playoffs after winning 39 of 45 regular season league games. The Hitmen swept the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs in the quarterfinals and won a hard-fought semifinal battle with the Bay State Breakers, which needed the mini game to decide a winner.

The Islanders have cruised through the postseason with sweeps of the Rochester Jr. Stars and Valley Jr. Warriors, and are the only undefeated squad in the EJHL playoffs.

Islanders head coach Sean Tremblay, who has solidified his reputation as the top junior coach in the Northeast, will be making his tenth consecutive trip to the Dineen Cup finals (the nine previous trips were with the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs). He’s looking for his eighth league title. The coach is happy with the recent progress his club has made.

“The last four weeks, we kind of put it together where the players have bought into the culture that we’ve tried to create, where they’re a really tight-knit family,” said Tremblay, whose team added young Avalanna Routh, a 6-year-old from Merrimac, Mass. who died of a rare form of brain cancer last September, to that family.

“They tap Avalanna’s jersey on the way out onto the ice before each period and they believe in each other. No one’s trying to be the hero. Everyone is doing their own small part which allows the big things to happen. We’ve preached that we do everything together. It isn’t one player who wins or loses a game, we do it together and they’ve bought into that. I’m extremely proud of them. ” 

There is not much separating the two clubs entering the last series of the season. Each received a bye into the quarterfinals. Each has won four playoff games, and neither has allowed more than eight goals in the postseason. Offensively, the Islanders have scored 27 goals in the playoffs while the Hitmen have scored 29. The only real difference between the two league powers is that the Hitmen will be in search of their third Dineen Cup in franchise history (they won it in 2008 and 2009) and the Islanders hope to bring the trophy home to Tyngsboro, Mass., for the first time.

Looking for a player to watch? With more than 20 college commits between the two teams, you will see an abundance of talent on the ice with each shift. 

The EJHL finals will take place at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass. Game 1 is Wednesday at 7:20 p.m. Game 2 will be on Thursday at 5:10 p.m., with the third game, if needed, slated for Friday at 2:20 p.m.

Game of the Week

The title games should be worth watching – for fans and scouts. The college coaches and pro scouts will no doubt flock to Hudson, N.H., and Marlborough, Mass., in abundance.

Power Rankings (with playoff records):

1) Islanders Hockey Club (4-0-0) - Will play for the Dineen Cup this week in the EJHL finals against the Jersey Hitmen.

2) Northern Cyclones (4-0-0-0) - Favored to bring the AJHL’s President’s Trophy home to Hudson, N.H., this weekend.

3) Bay State Breakers (4-2-1) - Took EJHL’s elite squad, the Jersey Hitmen, to the mini game in their semifinal series before losing 2-1.

4) Valley Jr. Warriors (4-2-0) - After sweeping the Connecticut Oilers in the EJHL quarterfinals, Valley was swept by the Islanders in the semifinals.

5) Boston Jr. Bruins (0-1-1) - Lost to Bay State in the upset of the postseason in the EJHL quarterfinals.

6) Connecticut Wolfpack (2-1-0-1) - The season ended in the AJHL semifinals versus the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.

7) New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (2-2-0) - The end of the line came in the EJHL quarterfinals against the Jersey Hitmen.

8) Walpole Express (0-2-0) - Victims of the biggest upset of the AJHL postseason at the hands of the New Jersey Rockets in the quarterfinals.

9) South Shore Kings (0-2-0) - Received a bye into the EJHL quarterfinals, only to lose both games against the Valley Jr. Warriors by one goal.

10) Springfield Jr. Pics (0-2-0) - Upset in the play-in round of the EJHL playoffs by the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.

11) Boston Bandits (0-2-0) - Qualified for the EJHL’s play-in round but were swept out of the postseason by Bay State.

12) Boston Jr. Rangers (0-2-0) - Lost to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights in the AJHL’s quarterfinal round.

13) Connecticut Oilers (0-2-0) - The EJHL’s expansion team found themselves in the play-in round, where they made a quick exit at the hands of the Valley Jr. Warriors.

14) Laconia Leafs (0-0-0) - Did not qualify for the AJHL postseason.

15) Portland Jr. Pirates (0-0-0) - The first-year EJHL team missed the playoffs.

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.