The road to the Hurster Cup starts this weekend for eight North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) squads.
Four best-of-three series are on tap and the winners of each series will advance to the Hurster Cup tournament next weekend in Toledo.
If the regular season was any indication, the playoffs should be extremely competitive.
“I don't believe there are any favorites in the playoffs as all the lower seeds beat the higher seed they're facing during the regular season,” remarked Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks coach Bob Jacobson. “We believe it's a great thing for the league and the competitiveness of the teams should make for some excellent playoff hockey.
“I wouldn't be at all surprised to see all four series go to three games.”
St. Louis coach J.P. Beilsten agreed.
“This weekend will be a good test for every team in the league,” said Beilsten. “I don't see any 'gimmies.' Any one of these teams can win their series and advance to Toledo.”
No. 8 Quad City Jr. Flames (22-19-2-2) at No. 1 St. Louis Jr. Blues (32-10-0-3)
THE SKINNY: Quad City squeaked into the playoffs last weekend, while St. Louis, last year’s Tier III Junior A national champions and a perennial NA3HL powerhouse, finished first overall.
NOTABLE QUOTABLE: “We are in for a tough one with the two-time defending league champs. J.P. has done a great job and he has his team ready for the playoffs and national run. We will be ready and it should be a good series.” - Quad City coach Tom McDermott
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The home team won each time during the regular season, with St. Louis taking two on Jan. 8-9 and the Jr. Flames winning a pair on Jan. 29-30.
No. 7 Queen City Steam (24-18-2-1) at No. 2 Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks (31-13-1-0)
THE SKINNY: This battle of Ohio should be an exciting series, even if Queen City dominated during the regular season. Cleveland allowed a league-low 27 power-play goals, while the Steam was fourth-best with 50 goals on the man-advantage.
NOTABLE QUOTABLE: “Both teams play solid defensive hockey and have good goaltending. For us, our secondary scoring and special teams are going to have to be a factor for us to win the series.” - Queen City coach Don Biggs
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Queen City swept the season series from the Jr. Lumberjacks.
No. 6 Toledo Cherokee (26-16-2-1) at No. 3 Peoria Mustangs (29-11-3-2)
THE SKINNY: Peoria had a shot at first overall as recently as last weekend, but fell to No. 3 by the end of the weekend.
FAST FACT: The Mustangs led the NA3HL during the regular season with an 87.23 percent penalty kill efficiency. Toledo captain Chad Tickner scored 36 goals on the year, 14 more than anyone else on the Cherokee.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The two teams split the four games during the regular season.
No. 5 Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins (29-16-0-0) at No. 4 Chicago Hitmen (28-14-2-1)
THE SKINNY: Chicago is dangerous on special teams having scored an NA3HL-best 15 shorthanded goals this year. The Hitmen were atop the league standings for a stretch as well. Pittsburgh is also a special teams juggernaut, scoring on almost 29 percent of their power plays during the season. Expect this series to come down to the goalies (Nick Kohn for Chicago and Collin LeMay for Pittsburgh).
FAST FACT: Pittsburgh scored a league-best 5.27 goals per game and the Hitmen a second-best 4.78. Each team features three of the league’s top ten scorers, led by scoring champion Jayson Angus (39 goals, 82 points) from the Jr. Penguins.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Chicago won the season series, 3-1.
At the Hurster Cup Finals, the four remaining teams will play a three-game round robin from March 24-26 with the top two teams at the conclusion of the round robin (most points) advancing to the Hurster Cup championship game, which will be played on March 27.
The two teams that advance to the championship game will earn a berth to the USA Hockey Tier III National Tournament. If one of those two teams is also the NA3HL’s regular-season champion, a third team will represent the league at nationals.