With the season just about half over, the Quad City Jr. Flames are already looking ahead to the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) playoffs.
And five returning players are leading the charge down in Davenport, Ia.
Second-year captain Jerry Rank, along with top-scoring forwards Josh Prygon, Kyle Vesling, Keegan Kavanaugh and Chad Hickson, has provided the type of leadership a young team like Quad City needs.
According to Rank, now in his third season with the Jr. Flames, there's a great deal to like about this season’s team - one that sits sixth in the league standings with a 12-8-2-1 record.
“I would have to say the biggest difference between this year and last year is a lot of the new faces around the locker room, but that changes throughout the year and already thus far with how close we have came together as a team,” said Rank.
“Every year we have great chemistry, but this year it seems that we are closer than ever,” added Hickson.
With the five veterans in tow, closeness has been a key trait in Quad City, along with confidence.
“We have a great core or vets that came back and know how to win and compete all season long,” Vesling said. “We know we have the skill to win and have showed the younger rookies how to win as well. The vets that came back have made a huge difference on the ice during games. We have had great leadership and all of the older guys on the team have really stepped up to coach’s challenge on going to nationals.”
“Chad and Kyle are the more vocal leaders with Keegan and Josh leading by example night in and night out,” explained Rank. “The bond with the veteran guys is probably one of the closest I have been a part of in my life. We are always together talking about the game and helping each other with fixing mistakes on the ice and competitive euchre games on the bus. I hope that the bond stays strong after the season and later on in life.”
“I think we all bring different types of leadership to the team,” Hickson said. “Some lead by example, some police the guys, and some pick everyone up if we start to fall. It helps that we all have played together before as well.”
Rank, one of three 20-year-olds on the Jr. Flames, was honored and humbled when he was named captain last year and learned last year how to improve his leadership for this season and take Quad City deeper into the playoffs.
“I had been a captain a couple of times growing up, but I don’t think it compares to being a captain on a junior hockey program,” Rank said. “I would have to say that it is quite an honor and to know that my coach has the confidence in me to help the team to a national tournament.
”Like anyone else, our expectation is the playoffs. Yes, we made it the past two seasons, but the main goal is for home ice and ending up at nationals. You can say the expectations are a little high, but I think we have the team to do it with the work ethic that everyone has on the team.”
Offensively, Prygon leads the team with 30 points and as in the past two years with the Jr. Flames, as he goes, so does the team.
“I've always liked to think of myself as being able to get points for my team, whatever team I may be on,” Prygon said. “This year, I've had a lot of help from my teammates and wouldn't have any points if it weren't for them.”
Still, getting through the second half successfully will hopefully put the Jr. Flames in a secure position come late winter.
“I think it's very reasonable for us to expect home ice advantage in the playoffs this year,” said Kavanaugh. “With that said, though, we've really got to bear down, especially with the schedule we've got ahead of ourselves over the next month or so.”
BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Kiryl Kylakoy netted two goals for the Jr. Revolution in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
CHICAGO HITMEN: Matt Spica is riding a three-game goal-scoring streak and also has five goals in his past five games. Chicago is also the lone NA3HL team to not allow a shorthanded goal this year.
CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: With a four-point weekend against Toledo (both wins for Cleveland), Troy Bubanic has taken over the Lumberjacks’ scoring lead with 24 points.
FLINT JR. GENERALS: Warren Carter has four goals in his last three games and now has 13 on the season.
METRO JETS: Head coach Jason Cirone played three NHL games for the Winnipeg Jets in the 1991-1992 season and has the most professional playing experience of any NA3HL head coach with more than 1,000 games played from 1991-2008.
MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: Erik Bachynsky’s assist Sunday against Flint was his first helper of the season. Bachynsky, who started the season with Metro, also has five goals.
PEORIA MUSTANGS: Brandon Neville scored in both games last weekend against Quad City - both wins for the Mustangs.
PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: Top scorer Jayson Angus has eight points in his last three games and, with his 37 points this season, is on pace to eclipse his 47-point performance of a year ago. His 22 goals is already better than his 18 from 2009-2010.
QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: The Jr. Flames have seen two players move up to the NAHL this season as forwards Andrew Amendola and Russell Blaser have seen time with the Janesville Jets.
QUEEN CITY STEAM: Queen City, at 11-10-1-1 on the year, is pretty much the same team at home (5-5-1-1) as it is on the road (6-5-0-0). Head coach Don Biggs’ son, Tyler, a forward with the U.S. National Under-18 Team, is a top-rated prospect for next summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: Goalies Justin Davis and Mitchell Fernsler are each in the league’s top 10 for goals-against average, save percentage and wins.
TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Cory Bastian leads all NA3HL defensemen in scoring with 23 points. Half of his 20 assists have come with the man-advantage.