By Joshua Boyd / USPHLNCDC.com
Jersey Hitmen (1) vs. Mercer Chiefs (4)
All games at the Ice Vault, Wayne, N.J.
Game 1: Friday, March 17, 5 p.m. EST
Game 2: Saturday, March 18, 5 p.m. EST
Game 3: Sunday, March 19, 1 p.m. EST (if necessary)
This is the first step towards the annual fulfillment of a long-standing goal for every Jersey Hitmen team – to win the league. They’ve done it twice in a row now, both in the regular season (actually five times straight there) and in the 2021 and 2022 postseasons.
“We were not handed anything this season,” said Hitmen Head Coach Toby Harris. “We came into the season with a target on our back and knew that we were not going to ‘sneak up’ on any opponents. The fact that this team grinded through a very tough South Division and NCDC overall to capture a Founders Cup just shows how resilient this group of players is.”
The first team that will look to take down the top NCDC team for so long running is a first-year team. The Mercer Chiefs entered the 2022-23 season looking to at least make an impact in Year 1. Mission accomplished, said Head Coach Rob Broderick.
“Just a great experience,” said Broderick, of his and the Chiefs’ inaugural NCDC year. “The skill level at the NCDC is excellent and the parity in the league is incredible. The players know they cannot afford to take a night off, and that is what you want in a league.”
What a college developmental organization also wants in a league is a chance to get all of their players prepared for the college hockey game. When Broderick looks at what his players were able to do the last seven months, he is more than satisfied with the end product that led to the team going 26-20-1-3.
“By leaps and bounds, and that is what it is all about,” Broderick said. “Every player is faster and stronger, and next week they will be better than they are today.”
Harris was among those who were certainly impressed with the first-year Chiefs, who went 3-3 in their season series with the Hitmen (who were 3-1-1-1 on the year against Mercer.)
“I have a ton of respect for what the Mercer Chiefs accomplished this year. They are a fast, gritty, structured team,” said Harris. “We really look forward to lining up against them this weekend. To be the best, you have to beat the best.”
While the Chiefs did keep the series close, Broderick knows there are no points for second place in the series – just the road home and the end of the season.
“Against the Hitmen you have to work on everything. They are so talented,” Broderick added. “Maybe most of all not letting them have easy zone entries with speed. We had some great [games against the Hitmen] and a few not so great ones. We have been shut out a few times and we should know by now we are not going to beat good goaltending (which the Hitmen have) from the perimeter. They are a highly skilled team that are also very well coached. It will be a challenge and we were excited for it.”
Talk about good goaltending – the Hitmen’s No. 1 man in net for the season, returning Dineen Cup champion J.J. Cataldo finished No. 1 in save percentage, with a .953, goals against average (1.70) and shutouts, with a league record of nine. That’s a record whether talking about single season or career, though over his two-year career he has an all-time high total of 10.
The Hitmen also feature the all-time leading defenseman scorer in the NCDC, Sean Melso. He finished first in blueliner scoring this year with 51 points in 50 games, giving him the career record of 125 points in his 139 games.
The hits just keep coming when you look at the forward ranks. Tyler McNeil, who led the league in scoring in the early portion of the season, came in at fifth with a 25-34-59 line in 50 games. He also tied for the league lead in game-winners with six. Michael DiPietra, who passed former P.A.L. Jr. Islanders to set the all-time NCDC games played record at 183 regular season contests, also finished in the top 10 of league scoring with 52.
“Our leaders from beginning to end were Captains Mike DiPietra, Sean Melso and Vinny Gould. I was happy to see goaltenders J.J. Cataldo and Peyton Grainer emerge as powerful voices in our locker room,” added Harris. “I feel like each and every player to a man got better this season. Through our intense off ice schedule (team lifts, boxing, yoga, spring work) and the addition of weekly power skating sessions, skills sessions and individual goalie training the team is able to get bigger, stronger, quicker and sharper in all the daily training sessions. This showed in going 12-1 down the home stretch.”
The Chiefs have a strong attack from the blue line, evidenced by one of the top 10 scoring blueliners in Trevor Davis (9-22-31). Two goalies Jacob Stern and Ryan Keyes were both strong in net with save percentages of .919 and .914, respectively, both ranking in the Top 15.
Leadership came from throughout the Chiefs roster, as evidenced by Broderick’s remarks on the topic.
“Honestly hard to single guys out, but I will mention our three captains Carson Skove, Trevor Davis and Peter Poulianis, along with 2002 D-man Jake Grace,” Broderick said.
As seen by their record against the Chiefs, every match could go any which way, so Harris knows his players have to be ready. Five straight Founders Cups and historic performances in hand, that’s never been a problem in Wayne, N.Y. Harris talks about how his team was getting ready for this weekend.
“Staying sharp. Staying true to our style of play and staying in the moment,” he added. “We know that Mercer is a very tough team with excellent coaching. We know it is not going to be easy this weekend so we are preaching to our club to take it one shift at a team. Stay grounded. Breathe and stay focused.”