With an overall 19-5-1-1 record going into this weekend, the Chicago Hitmen has tasted its share of success in the win column this year.
It’s just that its shootout loss to the Metro Jets on Sunday is what’s on the player’s minds these days.
Still in first place in the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) standings, the Hitmen had one winning streak ended Sunday, but look to start another as soon as this Saturday night against the Quad City Jr. Flames.
“The shootout loss to Metro was unacceptable,” said forward Matt Spica. “We played awful that game and felt even worse after it, so it will be a huge motivator for us. We’ve already lost once to Quad City in overtime and we won’t let it happen again. We need to start building our momentum back up after the Metro loss. The way to keep it going is to not underestimate any team we play and out-work every opponent every minute of the game.”
“We let one point slip away to Metro to build our lead in first place and we also lost in overtime to Quad City before Thanksgiving, so we know we have to come out strong (this weekend), and those losses will be in the back of our minds as we go out to play,” forward Matt Busterna chimed in. “We know everyone wants to beat us and knock us off, but we just have to go out and play our game. Our coaches also do a pretty good job to not let it get to our heads that we’re in first place, but we have to keep pushing on.”
The Hitmen, formerly the Chicago Force up until this season, have always been a top team in the NA3HL and the Central States Hockey League before that, but have yet to win the Hurster Cup or the national tournament.
Is this the season some new, shiny hardware comes to the Windy City?
“We have had four lines of talented players that do their jobs night in and night out and this has been hard for teams to match up against with three out of our four lines being able to score goals,” said Busterna. “Our main goal is to get to nationals by winning the league, so no matter what happens in the playoffs, we would still be going. Winning the Hurster Cup is no doubt a goal of ours also. We have to take it one step at a time and not get ahead of ourselves just yet.”
The chemistry on the team, even with players like captain Quentin Bicknase and Anthony Domico getting called up to the Hitmen team in the North American Hockey League, maybe isn’t where it should be, but that hasn’t stopped the wins from coming at a rapid rate.
“We have had great chemistry throughout the year, but at times it's been hard because we have had players getting called up to the NAHL team, players from the NAHL are playing here and a couple players decided to leave and play elsewhere,” Spica explained. “When there is so much roster movement going on, it is sometimes hard to feel like a complete team. We just need to work a little harder to pick up the slack.”
“I think we have great team chemistry even though we seem to have more vets than rookies now,” added Busterna. “Everyone gets along and we have fun on and off the ice. When we’re relaxed and having fun is when we are at our best.”
Spica and Busterna also named each other when asked what players have exceeded expectations this season. Defenseman Tanner Warner was also mentioned, as was Josh Baker, a player who has seen time up front and back on the blue line.
“Baker has been great for us,” said Spica. “His play has been very impressive and that’s saying a lot for a 1992 birth year player.”
Back on Dec. 4, Spica’s goal with six seconds left in the third period gave Chicago a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Jr. Blues, then the first-place team, and the following day, the Hitmen took a 5-3 win to make a move in the standings.
“Spica has scored big goals for us, especially against St. Louis which set the tone for the weekend,” said Busterna. “Spica and Tanner have been great for our team. After being down from the NAHL, both have stepped up their play and have worked hard. Tanner has been solid on defense for us and has really stepped up as a leader in the locker room and everyone respects him on our team.”
Speaking like a leader, Warner said the team can’t get too complacent, even with the holiday break coming up.
“Everyone just has to stay focused and want to keep getting better and not get satisfied or comfortable where they are,” said Warner. “Staying focused and keep pushing each other is key. The shootout loss was a tough one, but I think in a way it might have been a good thing in showing us that even though we are in first, it doesn’t mean we can just go out and go through the motions. Everyone is pumped for this weekend and ready to come home with four points before the break.”
How can the momentum keep going? According to Spica, it’s all about confidence.
“There is no secret to our success,” beamed Spica. “We are loaded with talent and if we just stick to the game plan, play our systems, and work hard, I believe we will win against any opponent.”
BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Radney Ritchie had a goal in each game last weekend against Toledo and now has eight on the season, second on the team.
CHICAGO HITMEN: Edward Schaeffer is riding a three-game goal streak and also has six points in his last four games.
CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: No Jr. Lumberjacks player has more than nine goals, yet the team is still four games above .500 (14-10-1-0) and has allowed just nine more goals that it has scored (68/77).
FLINT JR. GENERALS: Flint continues to play better on the road (8-8-0-0) compared to at home (4-6-0-0).
METRO JETS: Goalie Matt Braun picked up his first win of the season Sunday at Chicago with a 31-save performance. He also stopped all five Chicago attempts in the shootout.
MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: Jacob Endicott has scored in three of his last five games and is tops on the Mountain Cats with 14 goals this year.
PEORIA MUSTANGS: Brandt Soukup recorded three assists in the two games last weekend, a split at home with Flint.
PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: Top scorer Jayson Angus has zero penalty minutes this season and half of his 40 points have come on the power play. Pittsburgh has also won six straight games, the longest active streak in the NA3HL.
QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: Leading goal-scorer Kyle Vesling tallied three goals and an assist in last weekend’s split with the Mountain Cats.
QUEEN CITY STEAM: Matt Leon earned both wins in net last weekend against Cleveland and now has 11 on the year, good for a tie atop the league leaders in that category with Chicago’s Nick Clarke.
ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: Jamie DeMarco has five goals in his last five games.
TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Team captain Chad Tickner has registered his league-best 48 points a variety of ways - four power-play goals, six power-play assists and two shorthanded goals - while also spending just six minutes in the penalty box.