By Joshua Boyd / USPHL.com
USPHL Elite Conference
Islanders Hockey Club (2) vs. Bridgewater Bandits (3)
All games at Gallant Arena
Wednesday, March 8, 12 p.m.
Thursday, March 9, 12 p.m.
Friday, March 10, 9:30 a.m. (if necessary)
Two USPHL Elite teams will enter Gallant Arena on Wednesday, but only one will leave the week knowing they will be playing at the USPHL National Championships at the Nexus Center in Utica, N.Y., March 23-28. It’ll take either two or three teams to figure out the answer to this season-making-or-breaking question.
The Islanders finished with a 32-6-2-3 record. For a while they challenged the Northern Cyclones for the top of the division, but the already Nationals-bound Cyclones began to pull away in December and had a nine-point lead on IHC by the first day of 2023. The Bridgewater Bandits (25-16-2-1) were actually tied in points with the Cyclones on Dec. 1, 2022, but there was only room at the top for one. There is, however, room at Nationals for two North Division representatives.
Looking back at their regular season, Islanders Hockey Club Head Coach Jay Punsky was happy to see so many of his players progress – and many get a chance at USPHL Premier ice, as well.
“We had a strong regular season. Each player on our roster improved significantly and several got game time at the Premier level,” he added. “For us, development is the most important thing so we are proud to see our players grow.”
The Islanders saw 32 players register an Elite point this year, with the leader standing as Gabriel Leduc – his 58 points put him in the top 20 of overall league scoring. Matthew Domanchuk and Nick Therrien also hit the 50-point mark. Goalie Anthony LaCroix was second in shutouts (five) and top 10 in goals against average (2.30) and save percentage (.923).
On the Bandits’ side, Quirino DoCanto tied for third in goals with 33 and was a top 10 Elite scorer with 61 points. They also had scoring depth this year, with as many as 14 different players hitting double digits on the season. Goalie Luca Bruns was one of the busiest goaltenders in the league, seeing 909 shots against, but he was up to the task as judged by his 14 wins on the season.
“We had a great group of guys that were a major part of the culture here in Bridgewater on and off the ice for two years,” said Bandits Head Coach Joey McDermott. “We had some ups and downs, but recently have been able to handle adversity better than we were able to at the beginning of the season.
“In recent games we have been able to roll all four lines with scoring coming from up and down the lineup,” said McDermott, whose team finished the season with a 4-2 win over the division champion Cyclones. “We still need to defend the interior better, but it has been a major topic at practice these past few weeks. We have felt really good after beating the top ranked Cyclones in our last regular season game.”
“We have strong offensive concepts, and have found a way to generate scoring chances,” added Jay Punsky, of the Islanders, whose team went 5-1 in the final few weeks. “We can continually improve our defensive game.”
The Islanders dominated the regular season series against Bridgewater, 7-1, with the Bandits winning the fourth game in November.
“The Islanders are always going to be one of the top teams in the USPHL Elite as they can score in bunches and always have a good structure,” said McDermott. “They have certainly gotten the best of us this season for the most part, but our players have been using it as a motivation tool as we are looking forward to the challenge of a playoff series against them.”
It’s a whole new ball game in the playoffs, with the added magnitude of two very different outcomes – the winner moving on to the biggest tournament of the year, and the losing team having to end their season and disband. Punsky knows the visiting Bandits will bring it all together hard against his team.
“The Bandit games this year were fast, physical and challenging for our club,” said Punsky. “We expect to see a very motivated and hungry Bandits team tomorrow. It won’t be an easy series.”