By Joshua Boyd / USPHLNCDC.com
The situation in the South Division is the same as the North – across the whole NCDC right now, there are four teams that all have the chance to win their first Dineen Cup.
Mercer is looking to be the first new team since the inaugural season Islanders Hockey Club to win the hardware, after pulling off a massive 2-0 series upset over the No. 1 Jersey Hitmen.
“It was just a great series. It was fast, tough, and great hockey. Toby Harris and Jim Hunt are great coaches and people,” said Chiefs Head Coach Rob Broderick. “They have meant so much for hockey for a long time, and especially junior hockey in this region.They have raised the bar for junior hockey, especially in New Jersey.”
Across the Hudson and East Rivers, on Long Island, the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders are certainly hoping to win one more series this weekend, knowing that if that is the case, they would host the Dineen Cup Finals. The Jr. Isles finished exactly one point behind the Hitmen in the race for the Founders Cup and are thus the highest-seeded team remaining. They similarly won a 2-0 series, claiming the division semifinal win against the Rockets Hockey Club.
“[RHC] was a tough opponent to draw in the first round. I thought our guys did a great job preparing for the weekend,” said Marcou. “We knew it was going to be a tough weekend and we stuck to our strengths as a group and had success. To close the series out on Saturday and hold arguably one of the most offensive teams in the league to one goal is a great effort put forth from our entire team.”
The teams are in the middle of a six-day break between games, with plenty of time to prepare for this next big challenge, with a ticket to the Dineen Cup Finals on the line. The Jr. Islanders, who went 34-11-1-4, don’t have much more they could do right, but there’s always a situation here or video review moment there that could be tweaked, especially when you’re getting ready to face the No. 4 team that took down No. 1.
“I think our guys did a great job focusing on our structure. We stuck to the game plan. We knew that the Rockets have a lot of offense and we focus on shutting down their top players,” said Marcou.
Mercer, who posted a 26-20-1-3 record, are also hitting the ice like it was mid-November, except obviously with much more on the line with the upcoming two or three days.
“We took care of details on both sides of the puck, and for the most part contained the speed of the Hitmen through the neutral zone which is not an easy thing,” said Broderick. “We still have to work on generating more offense. We sometimes try for the perfect pass, and we are working on keeping it simpler in the offensive zone.”
“The two toughest teams this year were the Hitmen and the Islanders. Mike Marcou is someone who I really respect as a coach and as a person, and I also have known Ron Kinnear for a long time and he and Mike are a great team,” said Broderick. “It starts in net with the Islanders and Cameron Smith was to me the best in the league this year. And in front of Cameron, they are strong and they are fast and that is a pretty good combo. We are going to have to play our best.”
The Jr. Islanders featured one of the league’s top playoff performers, as Heikki Virtanen put up six points (3-3-6) in just the two games. And, yes, Cameron Smith had a great series with a .940 save percentage (79 saves on 84 shots) – but the No. 1 goalie in the playoffs so far? Mercer’s Ryan Keyes stopped 87 of 91 shots against the Hitmen, setting up a showdown against the current top two goaltenders.
“Phenomenal. He is dialed in,” said Broderick, who added praise to other Chiefs in the Hitmen series, as well.
“I thought Nick Babbie was one of the best players on the ice against the Hitmen. I am really proud of him and we need him to keep playing like that,” Broderick said. “On defense, all of our defensemen were rock solid – and they were aided by the forwards coming back and supporting the play.”
The St. Lawrence commit put the Jr. Islanders on his back – but he certainly shared the load.
“It was a great team effort by everyone. We’ve had different guys step up every night. Starting by our captains Cam Smith and Luca Leighton. Cam has shown time and time again his composure and character that help complete his game. Not only is he a great goalie, he is an essential leader in our locker room,” added Marcou. “The goal that Luca scored [i.e., the game-and series winner in Game 2] was the shift after the Rockets tied the game. That was a big momentum shift.”
From what he has seen in their matchups – the majority of which were P.A.L. wins, as they went 4-1-0-1 (Mercer went 2-3-0-1 in the series) – Broderick fully realizes he has his hands full. Just like he knew that with the Hitmen.
“We have had some great games against the Islanders. I expect the same in the playoffs. What I take away is that this should be some great hockey,” said Broderick. “We know we are going to have to work hard and play smart to score goals on Cam Smith, and that we are going to have to be the team to win more battles for loose pucks to be successful. I expect some great hockey this weekend on Long Island.”
“This is no easy task in front of us taking on the Mercer Chiefs. Rob Broderick is a great coach and has that team battling and playing hard,” said Marcou. “We have to be willing to play a full 60-minute game in order to have success against the Chiefs.”