NA3EHL Championship Series on tap this weekend
March 26, 2015
By Nathan Fournier, Sun Journal
The North American 3 Eastern Hockey League (NA3EHL) is ready to host their inaugural Championship Series at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee this weekend.
The match-up will feature the Eastern Conference champion New Hampshire Fighting Spirit (33-6-2), who will relocate to the Lewiston, Maine area for the start of the 2015-16 season. They will face the Western Conference champion Jersey Shore Wildcats, who started the season on a 33-game winning streak and earned 80 of 82 regular-season points, finishing 40-1-0.
Games 1 and 2 of the series are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with Game 3 on Sunday at 3 p.m. if necessary.
"I think it will be a great match-up," NA3EHL commissioner Wayne Sheehan said. "We have a couple of things happening, obviously, to have the Fighting Spirit advance to the final when they are going to make that our new home is pretty exciting for the league and for Lewiston. They go against an opponent that has been the class of the league all season. I think (Fighting Spirit General Manager/Coach) Rod (Simmons') staying power at the top in the mountain in the league, that coaching experience should help against a team that has more depth than the Fighting Spirit might have this year. I think Rod would say the same thing, given the injuries and shortened bench he has right now."
When the Fighting Spirit were based in Lake George, N.Y., they fell to the Syracuse Stampede in the finals of the Northern States Hockey League, the precursor to the NA3EHL. Last year, the Fighting Spirit were bounced in the second round by Jersey Shore.
New Hampshire and Jersey Shore met three times in the regular season. The Fighting Spirit gave the Wildcats all they could handle. The Wildcats won the first meeting 3-2 on Oct. 11. They claimed a 1-0 win a month later, and then a 2-1 victory on Jan. 16 to sweep the season series.
New Hampshire gave the Wildcats three of just seven one-goal games all season, all of which Jersey Shore won.
"They are an offensive team, they like to score goals," Simmons said of the Wildcats. "We are hoping we can match up the same way. We are coming a little light on the bench as you know since Christmas we are a little light with 15 skaters and two goaltenders due to injuries or whatever reason. We were the same way in the showcase after Christmas as well. Hopefully we have one more weekend left."
During the regular season, Jersey Shore outscored its opponents 217-79, while the Fighting Spirit outscored their opponents 174-75. In the playoffs, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents 25-12, while New Hampshire has scored 14 goals and allowed 11.
The Fighting Spirit started the playoffs against the Biddeford-based Maine Wild. After dropping Game 1 by a 4-1 count on March 4, the Fighting Spirit won back-to-back games on March 6 and 7, 4-2 and 4-3 respectively. In second round, New Hampshire swept the Cape Cod Islanders in two games with a 2-1 quadruple-overtime victory on March 11, and a 3-1 victory on March 13.
"It's one of those things when you are coaching young people, they have a tendency sometimes not to be as focused. It was an attitude adjustment, but we lost to Maine," Simmons said. "It was kind of a reality and the boys realized the situation and bounced back well."
The Wildcats, meanwhile, defeated the Roc City Royals in three games in the first round of the playoffs and swept the Wilkes Barre Miners in a rematch of last season's NSHL championship game.
Brett Bittner has been leading the Fighting Spirit in points in the postseason with four goals and two assists. He's joined by 13 other players who have recorded a point in the five playoff games.
"Brett and Alex Peddle have had a good year for us," Simmons said. "I think that and our goaltending and our adjustment of people we had to put back on (defense) has worked out pretty well. I think it's a combination of things right now, it's the guys playing a good team game, playing for one another and the guys that are injured and can't be here."
Peddle was the Fighting Spirit's leading goal scorer in the regular season with 25, and he added 30 assists. In the playoffs, he has three assists. Bittner led the team in goals during the regular season with 26 to go with 24 assists.
Ilya Spektor leads the league in playoff scoring, netting four goals and five assists in five games for the Wildcats. This was after a 20-goal, 19-assist regular campaign. Alexandre Racicot led the team in the regular season with 30 goals and 33 assists.
Claes Endre and Adam Higdon of the Fighting Spirit were two of the top goaltenders in the league. Endre was 15-3-0 with 1.70 goals against average and .939 save percentage. Higdon went 14-3-1 with a 1.93 GAA and a .929 save percentage. Each has seen playing time in the playoffs. Endre is 2-1, while Higdon is 2-0.
For Jersey Shore, Marc Schlaeger went 18-0-0 with a 1.82 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. He has played in three playoff games, winning all three. Tyger Howat went 17-1-0 in the regular season with 1.95 goals against average and a .940 save percentage. He's 1-1 in the post season.