By Joshua Boyd / USPHLNCDC.com
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders (2) vs. Rockets Hockey Club (3)
All games to be played at Northwell Health Ice Center
Game 1: Friday, March 17, 4 p.m. EST
Game 2: Saturday, March 18, 7:30 p.m. EST
Game 3: Sunday, March 19, 4:30 p.m. EST (if necessary)
Friday night begins the process, that of bringing down from eight to the final two NCDC teams who will contend for the one and only Dineen Cup. One of the four series going on this weekend in the division semifinals will see the middle two seeds of the top four in the South, the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders going up against the Rockets Hockey Club.
Both teams are original NCDC organizations from the 2017-18 season, so there’s a ton of history between the two. The host Jr. Islanders’ Head Coach Mike Marcou is expecting nothing less than a hard battle that no one will be surprised to see go three games. Two games would be more the surprise.
“This is going to be a fun series,” said Marcou, whose team finished 34-11-1-4. “The Rockets are a very skilled team that can score goals. We have had great matchups against them throughout the regular season and we are excited to compete in playoffs.”
The Jr. Islanders earned one more point than the Rockets from their series this year, showing just how close these two teams were. P.A.L. won three times, once in overtime, and the Rockets won three times, twice in the shootout.
“We had a great regular season series battle with them – three out of the six games went to overtime. They bring many challenges, as you can see in their record, especially at home,” said Rockets Head Coach Jared Kersner. “It starts with their goalie, [St. Lawrence commit] Cam Smith. He is a really good goalie who can win a game even when his team is not playing at their best. They play a great team game in front of Smith. They are hard to score against. Their power play is really good, especially on home ice.”
Indeed, the Jr. Islanders’ power play is second at 20.6 percent, but the Rockets are right behind them at No. 3 with a 19.6 percent success rate. The Rockets went 26-19-3-2 this season, their first under Jared Kersner. He took the bench from his older brother Jason, who was hired as the USHL Sioux City Musketeers Head Coach after two seasons behind the Rockets bench.
“I really enjoyed my first season as Head Coach. It was a great season filled with many new challenges that helped me grow as a coach,” said Jared Kersner. “The parity in the league was incredible. It made every game a battle. It took us 49 out of the 50 games to clinch a playoff spot. We are looking forward to our series against the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.”
Kersner went on to talk about how the players progressed throughout the season.
“We had tremendous development. We are a young team and it took some time for us to hit our stride. We grew as individuals and as a group,” said Kersner. “Our daily training environment here at the Rockets prepared us to play our best hockey in the end. We were able to win 10 out of our last 14 games. We are hoping that momentum will carry into the playoffs.”
Marcou was thrilled to return full-time to the bench in 2022-23 after missing most of 2021-22 due to cancer treatments. He is healthy now and hoping his team can make their first run to the Dineen Cup Finals.
“I am very proud of our team this year. You always know, at the end of the year, it’s going to be a close race to either a playoff spot or first place in the league,” said Marcou. “To be able to have the opportunity to finish one point short of winning the Founders cup is obviously tough, but there are so many positives to take from it. We had the least amount of regulation losses in the league and were one of two teams in the league with over 30 wins.”
Like his colleague Jared Kersner, Marcou is thrilled with how the players improved from Day 1 in September to now.
“In the beginning of the year, I knew we had a good team but it’s always a question on how much better the team/players develop throughout the year,” Marcou added. “This year, we went through adversity in the beginning of the season by losing five games in a row; four of those games without scoring a goal. Ever since then, our team has had our foot on the gas pedal and didn’t let up.”
Indeed, having a goalie like future St. Lawrence Saint Cameron Smith was a huge boost – Smith finished first in wins (27), second in save percentage (.940) and third in goals against average (2.27).
On the front end, Luca Leighton put together a 63-point season to place second in league scoring, and he was also second in assists with 41. Leighton was also one of four players with three shorthanded goals to lead in that category – and he also led in power play points with 25.
Jack Hewitt was second in defenseman scoring in the league with 43 points in 50 games, and he led the league’s defensemen in power play goals (eight) and points (22).
“Luca Leighton and Cam Smith, the two captains, have led this group this season both on and off the ice,” said Marcou. “I can say this is the most competitive group I’ve had in my time as a Head Coach. Shane Zarcone, Ty Broad, Zach Hahn, Carter Hanrahan, and Tyler Rolston are all key components in our leadership crew.”
The Rockets Hockey Club have plenty of weapons to bring to the fore, including the league’s top scorer, Bentley University commit Caden Cranston. He had an 18-58-76 line to lead in both assists and points. The Rockets were the only team with as many as four players in the top 10 of scoring. Tied for second in points was Cade Baker, with 63, followed by Army commit Barron Woodring and Cam Bergeman tied at sixth with 57 points.
Woodring tied Utica’s Michael Herrera for the league goal lead at 31 apiece – both were also the only two to get over the 30-goal mark. Woodring also led in power play goals at 11. Jonah Copre, a Quinnipiac commit, was also one of the team’s leaders all year on defense. He finished fifth in defenseman points with 39.
“Barron Woodring is our Captain and he is a huge reason for our success. He leads through his actions and words. When you see the work he puts in everyday it is inspiring to other players. It is obvious why he is a Division 1 athlete. Like I mentioned before we have a lot of young players, and he has been able to help them along in their maturation process,” said Kersner. “Cade Baker and Cam Bergeman were both returning players and were part of our leadership council from the beginning of the season. As returning players, they were familiar with our development model and were able to assist Rem and I in helping the team come together and having the success we have had.
“Jonah Copre who was new to us this season, and emerged as a leader right away. He already had two full seasons of junior hockey experience and was a huge addition to our leadership council with great experience and knowledge of what it takes to be a successful junior player,” Kersner added. “He was able to help a lot with some of our younger players as they dealt with adversity.”