It’s anyone’s guess as to where the Chicago Hitmen would be without its top forward line, but with two weeks left in the North American 3 Hockey League season, fifth place looks pretty darn good at this point.
Led offensively by captain Quentin Bicknase, Tony Domico and Matt Spica, the Hitmen were at one time atop the NA3HL standings, but with several players, including the aforementioned trio, getting called up to the North American Hockey League’s Hitmen, the team sputtered a bit.
That said, there were never any worries, according to Domico and Spica.
“I would say the league as a whole has become better and all the teams have improved during the season,” said Domico. “We have had our ups and downs this year, but I can guarantee you that (head) coach (Brent) Dolan has us on our way back up and we’ll be staying there. We come to practice and work hard and work even harder at dryland training.”
“We started the season off very strong and have had a couple of rough patches over the past few months, but we were also a completely different team in the beginning of the season, which makes it hard to compare the start to now,” added Spica. “I think now we are stronger than ever and have a great group of players heading into the playoffs.”
As the one wearing the "C," Bicknase makes it his responsibility to be heard, whether it’s by voice or by actions, to get the most out of his squad.
“As captain, I try and lead the team to victory in every game, but I don't feel pressured come game time,” said Bicknase. “I don't feel pressure because the way I play is consistent, so my performance is as good as it can be every game.
“I think our team has to bond to become a unit rather than individuals. We need to work that much harder in practice and go the extra mile to get the job done. Looking ahead to playoffs, I expect that our team will be in shape to outplay every team and that the chemistry will be 100 percent.”
Domico said that chemistry has never been an issue with his linemates or with any other Hitmen players.
“Being on a line with Bicknase and Spica for the past two seasons has really never been an issue,” explained Domico. “We’re like triplets; we always know where the other two will be. It’s like building a perfect sandwich; we each know what piece of the sandwich we are. It’s hard for a defense to predict what us three can do together because of how well we can play with each other.
“There’s no challenge at keeping our locker room close-knit. Our younger guys look up to the older guys. We are a family on and off the ice.”
Even if there seemed to be a revolving door at times with players coming and going to the NAHL and back, all three players are fans of the tiered system in the Hitmen organization, which also included a Junior B team in the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League.
”I believe the system works if they bring players up and down throughout the season giving the chances to the ones who deserve it,” said Domico. “It helps find the right fit for each individual player.”
“The tiered system provides a great opportunity for players on the 3HL team to get some NAHL experience and the players get to see firsthand what it takes to play in the NAHL,” Spica said. “That being said, with guys moving up and down, it does mess with the team’s chemistry.”
“I believe that the system of moving guys up and down breaks down each team evenly,” chimed in Bicknase. “At this point in the season, some of the guys coming down from the NAHL are third line players. I believe that our 3HL team could put up a good game against the NAHL team.”
Chicago is banking on solid outings coming each night in the coming weeks.
“Even though we are seeded in fifth place right now, we have already beaten every team ahead of us,” noted Spica. “We know we can go far into the postseason and we just have to prepare to win. I expect us to be playing for the Hurster Cup and moving on to nationals.”
“My expectations are that playoffs as a whole will be a battle to the end,” Domico said. “All the teams want to win the Hurster Cup and move on to nationals.
“We will lay it all on the table and hopefully, the outcome goes our way.”
BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Battle Creek hasn’t scored more than two goals in a game since a 5-4 loss at Michigan on Jan. 8.
CHICAGO HITMEN: Robert Kennedy picked up his first shutout of the season stopping all 27 shots in a 3-0 win over Michigan last Sunday on home ice. For Kennedy, it was just his fourth game this season.
CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: Matt Zaremba and Joe Sposit each had two goals and an assist in the Jr. Lumberjacks’ 7-5 win at Metro last Saturday night.
FLINT JR. GENERALS: Seven skaters had multi-point games in Flint’s 6-0 win over Battle Creek last Saturday.
METRO JETS: Brett Grech, a five-year veteran of the Jets, scored two goals in his home finale last Saturday night against Cleveland.
MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: Defenseman Tyler Schofield had a career-best three assists last Saturday in Chicago.
PEORIA MUSTANGS: Ian McKenna recorded his first multi-goal game of the season by scoring a pair Sunday in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: Nico Vecchio’s game-winning goal last Sunday against Peoria was his 20th goal of the season, making him the sixth Jr. Pens’ skater with 20 or more.
QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: Over his last 15 games, Kyle Vesling has gone pointless in just four and has tallied 14 goals and seven assists over that span.
QUEEN CITY STEAM: Queen City was idle last weekend and hosts Quad City this weekend with the seventh and final playoff berths possibly at stake. Quad City sits seventh with 46 points and the Steam are one point back.
ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: St. Louis has won six straight games, but is just one point up on second-place Peoria, who has a game in-hand.
TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Mario Macari had a goal and two assist in the two games last weekend versus St. Louis.
NA3HL ALUMNI NAMED ALL-ECAC NORTHEAST
Four NA3HL alumni who went on to play Division III hockey for Johnson & Wales University were named to the ECAC Northeast All-Conference teams recently.
Junior Jeremiah Ketts (Peoria Mustangs) earned Player of the Year and First Team All-Conference honors after his conference-leading 23 goals brought the Wildcats to a third-place finish. Kett's 48 points in the regular season and 27 in conference play were also a conference-best.
Sophomore goalie Matt Cooper (Queen City Steam) was voted Goalie of the Year thanks to his .911 save percentage and 2.70 goals-against average in conference play. Cooper was also the only sophomore named First Team All-Conference.
Defenseman Domenic Recchia (Michigan Ice Dogs) led all conference defensemen in overall points with 31, including 19 in conference games.
Sophomore defenseman Trevor Jewell (Peoria Mustangs) was tabbed honorable mention.