March 16, 2013

Tight-knit Jersey Hitmen claim EJHL crown

By Shawn Hutcheon

The Hitmen defeated the Islanders in the finals of the EJHL playoffs to win the Dineen Cup. (Photo: Shawn Hutcheon)

When a junior hockey coach recruits players for his team, he hopes that it will gel and be more than a hockey team. Those players need to share a common goal. They need to share the same beliefs in how to achieve that goal and they need to encourage and trust each other, because one stray opinion or one disgruntled player can have such a negative effect on the team that the goal cannot be attained. In short, the team must become the ultimate band of brothers.

From Day 1 of training camp back in August, head coach Toby Harris’ Jersey Hitmen were such a group and that is why they are the 2012-2013 Eastern Junior Hockey League champions.

The Hitmen dominated the league from the season’s opening face off. They won 39-of-45 league games or, to put it another way, Harris’ club earned 78 of a possible 90 points on the season. They had the circuit’s most dominant offense which scored 246 goals or 5.46 per game. The second highest scoring team in the EJHL, the Islanders Hockey Club, scored 63 fewer times (183 goals, 4.06 per game).

Defensively, Jersey was the best squad at keeping opponents off the scoreboard by allowing just 99 lamplighters (2.20 per game). That is how a team dominates an entire league and finishes the season as the Southern Division and overall regular season champion.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Hitmen went 6-2-0 in three rounds of the EJHL’s playoffs to become Dineen Cup Champions for the third time in five years. Did someone say “dynasty?”

Along the way, Harris’ crew averaged 5.30 goals for per game and gave up just 2.00 goals each time out on the ice in playoff competition. The statistical dominance of the Hitmen is overwhelming.

By the way, seven of the top ten playoff scorers wore the blue-and-white uniform of the Jersey Hitmen.

In the finals, they took on coach Sean Tremblay’s Islanders. The series was a hard fought, extremely physical affair that took many different plot twists, from a Game 1 victory in which Jersey was clearly the better team to a Game 2 defeat at the hands of Islanders goaltender Colton Phinney, who stopped 48 Hitmen shots and scored the game-winning goal in the first period.

The third game was one of ebbs and flows. The Islanders held leads of 1-0 and 2-1 only to see Jersey put on a commanding display of hockey in the third period – one in which they scored six unanswered goals to become playoff champions.

After the Cup-clinching win, an ecstatic Harris had nothing but complimentary things to say about the Islanders and his club.

“I’m so proud of the guys.” the coach said. “You know, the Islanders are a tremendous team and they’re well-coached and they took us to the limit but our guys did what it took to bring home the Cup. It’s three Cups in five years and we’re moving in the right direction with the franchise and I’m so excited for the boys.”

Jersey’s captain and Mercyhurst recruit Jack Riley (West Point, N.Y.), who was on the losing side of last season’s championship series with the Hitmen against the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, described the victory as one that fulfilled his expectations.

“It’s like no other feeling,” Riley said. “It’s unbelievable. We had some ups and downs during the year but it feels great. At the beginning of the year, I knew we had a good team, so I kind of had a feeling that we could get here and it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Goaltender Chris Funkey led the postseason in games played (eight) and wins (six). He also posted a 1.91 goals-against average along with a .936 save percentage. He spoke about how happy he was for his teammates.

“It feels phenomenal,” the puck-stopper said. “It’s the best feeling I’ve had in my whole life. I was just looking around the locker room and seeing the smiles on everybody’s faces, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Funkey went on to describe how the team is a tight-knit group.

“I love every one of these guys on this team,” He continued. “Everybody loves and trusts everybody else and I feel that’s why we had so much success this year.”

Another member of the Hitmen who was instrumental in the series victory over the Islanders was Dominic Trento (Brockport, NY). The winger finished fourth in playoff scoring and was named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs.

He echoed Funkey’s sentiments about their club, “I’ve been in this league for four years and this is the best team I’ve ever played on. It’s one of the most special teams I’ve been a part of and I can’t begin to explain the feeling right now. These guys put it all out on the line and I couldn’t be more proud of them. All season, my linemates Jack Riley and Tim Clifton, both Division I recruits, supported me and fit in with my style of play. They and the organization brought me to the next level. I couldn’t have done it (be named playoff MVP) without my teammates.”

And finally, defenseman Brock McGinn, another four year EJHL veteran, who found a home with Jersey this season, spoke of how special it is for him to win the title with this group of players.

“All the guys are great,” said McGinn with a smile that may never come off his face. “I love them all and we’re all high with emotion right now. It feels great. I’m so happy to have won this with this group of guys. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else.”

EJHL Awards

At the conclusion of the playoffs, the Eastern Junior Hockey League announced its award winners for the 2012-2013 season.

The Coach of the Year award went to Tony Maksymiu of the Rochester Jr. Stars. The coach guided his club to a 24-15-0-5-1 record and a fourth-place finish in the league’s Northern Division. The Jr. Stars defeated New York Apple Core in the play-in round of the playoffs before bowing out of the postseason to eventual playoff finalist Islanders Hockey Club.

The award for Goaltender of the Year went to Linus Lundin of the Springfield Jr. Pics. A native of Sweden, Lundin played every minute of every game for the Jr. Pics this season and posted a record of 24-20-2-1 to go with a 2.51 goals against average and a save percentage of .949. He led the Jr. Pics to an appearance in the EJHL playoffs where they were eliminated by the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.

The Defensive Player of the Year was Islanders Hockey Club defenseman Derek Stahl. The Londonderry, N.H., native scored one goal and fourteen assists this season but is known for making sound decisions with the puck and also for his stellar play in his team’s defensive zone. In the playoffs, Stahl added two assists and was a key contributor in the Islanders march to the Dineen Cup Finals. Stahl will attend and play for the State University of New York at Geneseo next season.

The Offensive Player of the Year Award went to Brendan Bradley of the Jersey Hitmen. Bradley, who hails from Richboro, Pennsylvania, led the EJHL in regular-season scoring with 17 goals and 61 assists for 78 points. In the postseason, he added two goals and eight assists for ten points in eight games. Bradley will play for the University of Vermont in the 2013-2014 season.

Rookie of the Year went to Ryan Fitzgerald of the Valley Jr. Warriors. A resident of North Reading, Massachusetts, Fitzgerald scored 17 goals and 19 assists totaling 36 points in 32 contests. In the postseason, the crafty center added three goals and three assists for six points in six games. Fitzgerald will play for Boston College next season.

The Most Valuable Player of the EJHL for 2012-2013 is Jersey Hitmen forward Andrew Black. The Buffalo, N.Y., native tied for the league lead in goals with 30. He added 36 assists to his scoring ledger for a total of 66 points in 44 games. In the playoffs, he finished second in the league with six goals and six assists for twelve points. Black will take his goal scoring abilities to Colgate University in the fall of 2013.  

Twitter: @ShawnHutcheon