The Hurster Cup will be awarded this Sunday in Toledo and all four North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) teams feel they can be the ones to hoist the hardware.
Last weekend, the top two NA3HL teams, St. Louis and Cleveland, were bounced by the seventh and eighth seeds, but with St. Louis winning the regular season title, the Jr. Blues earned an automatic bid to the Tier III Junior A national tournament.
The Peoria Mustangs, Chicago Hitmen, Quad City Jr. Flames and Queen City Steam all won their series last weekend and advance to the Hurster Cup round robin this weekend. Quad City came in as the No. 8 seed, while Queen City was seeded seventh.
Hence, facts are only on paper and the results of the games are what matters.
Quad City eliminated St. Louis in three games, but the series could have gone either way.
“Last weekend was everything we were expecting,” said Quad City coach Tom McDermott. “It was a fast-paced and hard-hitting three-game battle. St. Louis is well-coached and played great hockey and it went down to the last second.”
”For us, last weekend we simply went out and played our game,” Jr. Flames goalie Michael Meadows added. “We played the way we know we can play and in the end, we came out with two hard-earned victories. It was a great series.”
The other upset had Queen City topple Cleveland.
“Last weekend was exactly what we had seen all year with competitiveness amongst all the teams,” Steam coach Don Biggs said. “We ended up in two very close one-goal games that special teams and goaltending decided. (Queen City goalie) Matt Leon was outstanding in both games and we were able to get a power-play goal in game one and a shorthanded goal in game two. I felt like all the close games we had to play all year got us battle-tested for the series.”
According to Leon, changing speeds was the key to Queen City advancing.
“The series versus Cleveland was played at a much higher level of intensity and played with a much greater sense of urgency,” said Leon. “It was a fast-paced, exciting series and my team did a great job of finding that extra gear you need in playoff hockey.”
Third-seeded Peoria needed the full three games to eliminate Toledo. A playoff absentee last year, the Mustangs returned to the post-season full of confidence.
“Last weekend was a good test for our team,” Peoria forward Nathan Chasteen said. “Toledo played strong all weekend and we had to dig deep to win, especially after being down 0-1. It confirmed the heart of our team. If you don’t play at the top of your game, you can be sure the other team will. It has been that way all year and any team has the chance to win (the Hurster Cup). We are looking forward to the challenge.”
Losing the first game was tough for Peoria, but good teams don’t panic from adversity, said coach Jean-Guy Trudel.
“I think the boys took two periods (Friday) to understand the intensity of playoff hockey and realized that we need to battle for every inch of the ice,” said Trudel. “After they got it, they played Mustangs hockey. Our expectations (this weekend) are to take it one period at a time and never regret.”
The No. 4-No. 5 matchup had Chicago hosting Pittsburgh. After a game one win, Chicago needed overtime to finish the job in game two.
“Last weekend was huge for us,” Chicago captain Quentin Bicknase said. “Aside from both big wins, I think our team bonded even closer, which is huge going into Hurster.”
“This past weekend was truly a battle of two evenly-matched teams, which is what you would expect from a 4 vs. 5 matchup,” Hitmen coach Brent Dolan added. “Home ice was the key for us. I think the team fed off of the home crowd and that gave us an emotional edge.”
Chicago media director Ken Oda also chimed in with his thoughts on the series with the Jr. Penguins.
“From an organizational standpoint, last weekend was huge,” Oda said. “We've never had home ice in the first round, let alone win a first round series. On the ice, it was about what I expected. If you look at the only time the Hitmen struggled, it was an 0-5-1 stretch from Dec. 12-Jan 14 during which Bicknase, Tony Domico and Eric Szafranski were all getting a shot in the NAHL. Outside of that run without three of their best players, the Hitmen were 28-9-2.”
Looking ahead to Toledo, all involved feel this may be the tightest group of teams going for the Hurster Cup and may come down to the intangibles.
“Anytime you go into a tournament format, you hope that you can catch lightning in a bottle and play consistently well the whole time,” Biggs said. “There are four good teams that have all faced adversity this season and certainly will be well-prepared for each other. Our goal is to be the first team in franchise history to go to nationals and the players are excited about the challenge.”
“Every team playing this weekend is physical and works hard in all three zones,” added Dolan. “Individual matchups and goaltending will be key to each team’s success.”
McDermott noted that while coaches will play the percentages and find the good matchups, other situations will undoubtedly come into play.
“This weekend, you have four teams playing well and anything could happen,” McDermott said. “The teams that move on will be the ones capitalizing on their chances and getting the bounces.”
Meadows summed up each player’s and coach’s thoughts when asked what his outlook is for this weekend at the Team Toledo Ice House.
“We know what we have to do,” explained Meadows. “We've been preparing for this all year and now all we have to do is go out there and take it. We know the games will be close and in the end, it's simply going to come down to who wants it more.”
The Hurster Cup Finals kick-off tonight with two games - Chicago vs. Quad City at 5 p.m. EST and then Peoria vs. Queen City at 8 p.m. EST.