In years gone by, the Chicago Hitmen going to the Hurster Cup playoffs generally meant a first round exit.
That was then and after blanking the Queen City Steam, 4-0, last Sunday afternoon in Toledo, the Hitmen (formerly the Force) have their first North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) championship.
With the win, Chicago earns a berth into this weekend’s Tier III Junior A national championship tournament in Rochester, Minn.
Queen City and regular season champion St. Louis are also going to Rochester.
But for the Hitmen, a team that had what many would call a roller coaster regular season, winning the NA3HL playoffs has been a long time coming.
“It feels great because we have always been one and done in the playoffs,” Chicago forward Matt Spica said. “It was amazing for us to go undefeated throughout the postseason. We knew we were good enough to win the Hurster Cup, but with some of our losses and the transactions with the NAHL team, other teams in the NA3HL thought we were weak because we were seeded fourth.
“It feels great to prove them wrong.”
Spica’s linemate, Tony Domico, echoed his sentiments.
“We came together as a team at the most important part of the season and put it all together at the right time,” Domico said. “Watching our team play Queen City the night before in overtime and come out with the victory got our adrenaline flowing more for the championship game. The shutout was huge for (goalie Nick) Kohn and that proves to us we can count on him when we need him to come up big.”
Kohn stopped all 19 shots he faced on Sunday, while Domico scored two goals and added a pair of assists. Spica and Joe Spitzer scored the other Chicago goals.
“The feeling is surreal,” Chicago head coach Brent Dolan said. “I am proud of the team for coming together and playing their best hockey at the right time. As a coach, you want your team to peak at playoff time. We have fought through some adversity which I felt brought us closer as a team. It was difficult this season with numerous players coming in and out of our lineup, but that is the system that is in place. By moving players up to the NAHL level, we get those guys experience while allowing some of our younger players more playing time at the NA3HL level. It definitely cost us some wins, but it's about player development at this level.”
Many of the Hitmen players said that going into the title game, the word “nerves” or any derivative didn’t need to be said. Plain and simple, no one was nervous.
“I don't think there were many nerves going into the game because we found a way to win the night before with out top line (Domico, Spica, captain Quentin Bicknase) out getting rest and we knew we had to win to get the last change and matchups we wanted,” forward Matt Busterna said. “It just says a lot about our team. Kohn made some big saves in the first minutes of the game and they hit the post also, so it could have been different early, but we were ready to play and were focused on the game itself.”
Starting Friday night, the second season will ramp up again as the national tournament gets underway. For the Hitmen, optimism is at an all-time peak.
“Every team at nationals is going to be very talented and I expect very close games,” said Spica. “Defensive play and goaltending will make the difference between winning and losing.”
“I like to keep the routine the same as how we prepared for playoffs,” noted Dolan. “We will keep the practices high tempo and make sure the atmosphere is loose, but focused. I know the teams we will face are the best of the best, but I emphasize to our team all we can control is how we play. As long as we play to our capabilities, we can live with the results.”
“We just have to have a good week of practice and keep loose and have fun,” Busterna explained. There's not a lot to change or do at this point other than go out and play hard. I expect us to keep on rolling into nationals.
“Everyone’s on the same page and there’s no reason we shouldn't end up in the national championship game.”
STEAM GEARING UP FOR NATIONALS
Being Hurster Cup runners-up has a nice consolation prize for the Steam, as they will also represent the NA3HL this weekend.
Still, it would have been nice to get the automatic bid, according to Queen City goalie Matt Leon.
“Sunday's game was the most heartbreaking game I personally have ever played in,” said Leon. “Our team worked so hard to get there and then just didn't show up in the game that mattered most. It definitely hurt and was a bad way to go out being shutout. I've never lost in a championship game and now I know the feeling and it is definitely not one I want to have again, but it was a bittersweet feeling because I knew we still have a lot of hockey to play at nationals.”
Leon said that the team had booming confidence, but noted that can sometimes be a negative.
“I think everyone was a little too comfortable going into the game and that was our downfall,” Leon said. “We had been getting great results and we felt like since we deserved it, it would just be given to us. All the other playoff games you could feel the nervous energy jolting around the room, but it was a good sort of nervous.
“I feel like the problem was that there weren't any nerves. Everyone was calm thinking that since we battled hard and have been playing great hockey up to the championship game that we could just glide around and throw our sticks in the middle of the ice and the game would just be handed to us. Hockey is played off emotion and we just didn't have enough of it to compete.”
Queen City head coach Don Biggs, who led the Steam to the franchise’s first-ever Hurster Cup title game, said the better team won Sunday - nothing more, nothing less.
“It was close in the first period and then we just didn’t have the legs to sustain a forecheck and force any turnovers,” Biggs said. “There were nerves, but more excitement to be going out to play for the Hurster Cup. It’s been a very rewarding year for myself and all the staff. The players have had their ups and downs, but we really came together at the right time. They have played the underdog role very well for the last month or so.We hope it will continue for another week and the players that return next year can use it as a positive experience to improve themselves as players and as people.”
Just having a successful season will go miles when it comes to the reputation of not only the Queen City franchise, but for the entire NA3HL.
“What these boys have done is help the organization with attracting future players to come to Cincinnati. “As you know, any time you have success, especially getting to the national level, people take notice. We have always been a solid program, but having this type of season could help us moving forward to attract the types of players that will help to keep us being successful year after year.”
DEFENDING CHAMPS FEEL NO PRESSURE
By having nearly two weeks off after losing in the first round of the playoffs to Quad City, the defending national champion Jr. Blues don’t feel any pressure to repeat, nor do they see any signs of rust.
In fact, the break was just what the proverbial doctor ordered.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to having the time off,” St. Louis head coach J.P. Beilsten said. “Certainly, it hurts from the standpoint of trying to be at game speed when we hit the ice in Rochester. We had some intersquad games that were pretty competitive last weekend, so I think that will help, but one of the big advantages is we had time to get some kids healthy that were a little banged up and sick.”
From a player’s standpoint, the rest was also well-received.
“I believe the long layoff actually did us a lot of good,” forward Bo Eastman said. “Of course, we are not happy with losing in the playoffs, but we got much-needed rest. At the end of the regular season we were playing for our lives. In order to win the league, we had to take nine straight games and get some help. So for over a month, our season was on the line and the rest came at the perfect time.”
Going to Rochester as the defending champs may seem like it would come with heavy pressure, but that’s not the case with the Jr. Blues.
“I don't think you go to a national tournament and think you can't compete,” said Beilsten. “We think we can compete with every team in the tournament. That doesn't mean we will win, should win, or can win, but we feel like we have as good of a shot as any team in the tournament. Our expectation is that the kids go, compete hard for every shift they are on the ice, and see where we shake out in the end.
“We don't feel any pressure at all to repeat. To get there is hard enough, especially with the makeup of our league this year, but to repeat is a long shot under the best of circumstances. This is a different team than last year’s team, just like the four Junior B national championship teams were all very different from one another. We tell the kids that their success is not based on how they compared to the previous years teams. They are two very different teams that took very different paths to Nationals. We aren't playing the same teams, we are playing in a different city, and everything about it is different.
“So even though our expectations for the team are high, hopefully that doesn't translate to pressure on the players. That being said, we will certainly have a target on our backs because of our success last year. That will hopefully keep our players on their toes knowing they will get every team's ‘A’ game.”
Eastman agreed with Beilsten, an assistant coach last season for St. Louis.
“My expectations for nationals are for my team to play as hard as we can,” said Eastman. “If we play as hard as we can and also play smart then things will go our way. I do not think that the pressure is on us. This year’s team is very different from the team of last year. I believe the pressure is on every team there because no one wants to go home empty-handed.”
ALUMNI NAMED D-III ALL-AMERICANS
Three NA3HL alums were named Division III All-Americans for their play this season.
On the East First Team, former Cleveland goalie Paul Beckwith, now a junior at Oswego State, made the cut.
Former Michigan Ice Dogs forward Shawn Skelly found his way to the national championship game as a senior with Adrian College and made the West First Team.
The East Second Team featured ex-Peoria forward Jeremiah Ketts, now a junior at Johnson and Wales University.