By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
Seed: Florida #1
All games at Utica University Nexus Center, Utica
Day 1: MJDP, 11 a.m.
Day 2: Islanders Hockey Club, 1:30 p.m.
Make it six Premier Nationals in a row for the Florida Eels – and in the last couple, they’ve made it well past the round robin, so you have that feeling this Eels team is just knocking on the title door every year now. In 2021, they reached the National final but fell in a close 2-0 battle with the Charlotte Rush. Last year, they powered through the round robin, past the quarterfinals and into the semifinals before falling to the eventual champion Rockets Hockey Club – again, a close one at 3-2.
“It’s a credit to the veteran leadership that we’ve had throughout these past few seasons. They’ve done a good job about making newer players feel welcome, establishing our culture and showing how we do things here,” said Head Coach Frankie Scarpaci. “They’ve also done an incredible job of reinforcing our structure. The whole group is really close and I can’t say enough about how hard they work each and every day.”
Go down the roster and look at how many years some of these players have been dedicated to this program – Easton Moore, four years; Collin Patterson, three years; 10 more with two years of Eels experience. These players are not only getting a fantastic junior career of preparation for college hockey, but they are determined to bring a national championship to Fort Myers, Florida.
And these players are some of the top talents in the East Coast portion of the Premier Conference, where every team’s defense and goaltending is tough to the point where you don’t quite see the higher offensive numbers of the western half of the league. Three of the four East Coast teams with at least six players scoring 40 points or better will be at the Nationals – the Eels, Charlotte Rush and New York Aviators. The fourth, the Utica Jr. Comets, won their first playoff round and pushed the National-bound Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights to three games.
Further, the Eels and Aviators were the only two East Coast teams to make Top 10 in goals per game to end the season, with the Eels clocking in at sixth with 5.77 per contest. Florida’s scoring depth certainly helped give them a two-win sweep of the Palm Beach Typhoon at the Florida Division playoffs. The depth goes beyond the forward lines, too.
“A lot of players [led the way in the Florida Division playoffs],” said Coach Scarpaci. “That’s pretty much been the case all year, as it hasn’t been just one player but the depth of our lineup. We love our goaltenders. Our defense brings a lot of different play styles together and the depth scoring of our forwards has been the heart of this team. Some games it’s Patterson, others Moore, Damon Kiwaysew, or even on the back end with Kyle Ziemba, Eric Hambling, Brayden Goddard, etc. Our first round was no different.
“I think the team is happy with our series against the Typhoon. They did well testing us with their transition game and I think we got better as the series went on about maneuvering through their forecheck,” Scarpaci added. “I think it was a good first round for us to build off of.”
Second-year forward Devin Shepherd led the Eels in scoring against the Typhoon, with four points. He was one of nine goal-scorers in the series, and there were 15 Eels point-scorers in the series. That matches up well with the regular season, where 28 Eels scored goals and 31 had points, including goaltender Duncan Rolleman. Leading the way this year was Moore at 71 points with Patterson right behind at 70.
Both Rollemann and Tobias Bell finished in the top 20 for goals against average, at 2.25 and 2.41, respectively. In January, the team also brought in former QMJHL major junior goalie Adam Rouleau, who went 8-0 and had a .960 save percentage (but just didn’t play enough minutes over the course of season to be ranked among league leaders).
To top all this off, Kyle Ziemba’s +58 was the top rating for all USPHL Premier defensemen for the regular season. They hurt you at offense, defense, goaltending. We’ll just have to see if any of the Eels’ opponents can find some chink in the armor, because there’s nothing obvious. And an already sharp ax blade of a team is going to get down to a hair-splitting edge with a week of practice.
“It’s the details. Just making sure the little things are clicking. Structure and situational stuff are team by team adjustments, but at the end of the day there’s a ton of good teams,” said Scarpaci. “Its who’s going to execute and who’s going to apply. I believe in this group.”
The Eels will see a tough Metro Jets Development Program (MJDP) with the goaltender holding the best save percentage in the league in Taylor White. From there, they’ll have an Eels vs. Islanders Hockey Club showdown, taking on one of the traditionally toughest New England Division teams. The Eels and Islanders have only met at one Nationals, back in 2018, a 5-0 Islanders win.
“Every team at Nationals will be very good. We’ve done a good job about getting to showcases and playing a lot of the top teams throughout our schedule,” said Scarpaci. “The good news is we have experience, and understand just how deep the league is. We like that our team seems to adapt to a variety of different opponents’ play styles.”