The two teams that everyone expected to face each other in the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s Gary Dineen Cup finals will not be vying for the championship.
The league’s regular season champion Boston Jr. Bruins were swept out of the playoffs in the semifinal round by the Jersey Hitmen, while the Southern Division champion, the South Shore Kings, were eliminated by the two-time defending champion New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.
For the second consecutive season, the Hitmen, who won seven of their final ten regular season games, earned a trip to the finals after a two-game sweep of the Valley Jr. Warriors in the quarterfinals, which was followed by the surprising upset over the Jr. Bruins in the semi finals. Through four games, Jersey has outscored their opponents 24-10.
Andrew Black has been leading Jersey’s offense. The 19-year-old forward has amassed six goals and five assists for eleven points during the two series. Five of his goals came against the Jr. Bruins.
Head coach Toby Harris had high praise for Black.
“Andrew has been tremendous,” Harris said. “He came to us from a prep school in Pittsburgh and he was an unknown. He has a top-level shot and is a puck hound that can make plays. He has five or six Division 1 schools talking to him. He’s going to be a steal for the school that gets him.”
Black has been ably assisted by 18-year-old Jack Barre. The Dartmouth College recruit has picked up ten points in the playoffs on the strength of one goal and nine assists.
“Jack can protect the puck well,” Harris said. “He likes to make plays. The chemistry he has with Black and Jack Riley has been tremendous this season.”
Harris added that 6-foot-2 defenseman Denton King has been a leader on the blue line for his club.
“King, who is Gord Kluzak’s nephew, is a big, physical kid who is very strong,” Harris said. “He’s been a rock on the blue line for us.”
Of course, teams need clutch goaltending to make it to the championship round and Adam Miller provided that for the Hitmen.
“He came to us from the Chicago Steel (USHL) in January and went 16-2-0 for us,” explained Harris. “He’s a real difference maker who is up for any challenge. He is very athletic and competes very hard for us.”
In the playoffs, special teams can be a factor in a team’s march to the finals. That’s certainly been the case for Jersey. The power play has produced nine goals in 25 opportunities – good for an astonishing 36 percent success rate. The Hitmen have been very adept at killing penalties as well. The club has been shorthanded 23 times during the playoffs and have had one goal scored against them. This 95.6 percent efficiency rate has served notice that teams do not necessarily have the advantage when they go on the power play.
Harris explained his special teams philosophies.
“We have three power play units that run three different systems which makes it more difficult for teams to defend against,” he said. “On the penalty kill, we use seven forwards and six defensemen. Combined, every guy on the club is involved in our special teams.”
Looking forward, Harris said, “We’re a hungry team and we’re playing with confidence. We had some success against the Monarchs this season but we know they’ll be ready for us.”
The Monarchs journey to the championship series wound its way through Bay State and South Shore. New Hampshire dismissed Bay State in two straight games. In the EJ semifinals, the Monarchs lost the first game of the series by a 6-1 score to heavily favored South Shore, but bounced back in game two to emerge victorious 3-2, forcing a mini game in which New Hampshire came away with a 4-2 win.
When asked to explain his club’s philosophy approaching the playoffs, head coach Sean Tremblay said, “We went at each series with the attitude that we worry about ourselves. When we lost that first game against South Shore, we talked about Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ and how it talks about being stoic and becoming a man. We told the players it’s time to play like men, and they went out and did it.”
Offensively, New Hampshire is being paced by Cameron Brown’s (Natick, Mass.) seven points, all assists, in five games. Brian Morgan (Windham, N.H.) has scored three goals and two assists. Both players are University of Maine recruits.
Speaking about his top line Tremblay said, “Brown and Morgan’s chemistry is undeniable. They’re tremendous players who make each other better. Connor Anthoine (Lewiston, Maine), who is a University of Vermont recruit, has been a solid contributor on that line also.”
Tremblay also spoke about his defense corps. “They have been very consistent as a group all season long,” he said. “They all come to compete each and every night for us.”
The coach commented on his goaltenders as well. “We’ve split the duties between our goaltenders Zach Andrews and Terry Shafer,” said Tremblay. “They each have had their moments when they’ve played great and also faltered. When one does falter, the other takes over for us and they each welcome that. They’re great friends who are supportive of each other.”
The Monarchs’ power play and penalty killing units have been almost as stellar as those of the Hitmen. New Hampshire’s man advantage has lit the lamp five times in 15 attempts for a 33.3 percent success rate. The PK units have enjoyed success killing 16 of 18 penalties during the playoffs. That 88.8 percent rate is second only to Jersey’s.
When comparing his special teams to those of the Hitmen, Tremblay said, “We have two power-play units that are distinctly different from each other, and on the penalty kill we have set units there also. The players who play on the PP don’t play on the PK and vice-versa. We give them roles to play and it has worked for us. I think the series will probably come down to special teams as the deciding factor.”
Asked what he expects from Jersey, Tremblay added, “I expect the absolute best from the Hitmen, which is what they always give us. I have the ultimate respect for Toby Harris, his coaching staff, the ownership and the entire organization. It’s first class all the way.”
The Jersey Hitmen and the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs have become two of the elite junior franchises in the eastern United States. The Hitmen claimed the EJHL title in 2008 and 2009 while the Monarchs have been Kings of the mountain in six of the last ten seasons. This series promises to be one for the ages.
It all begins Wednesday night at 7 o’clock. Game two will be played on the following day at 5 o’clock and – if necessary -- game three will be played on Friday afternoon. All three games will be played at the New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass.