The 2012 3HL playoffs get underway this weekend with all 16 teams in action. The first round will feature the #1 seeds hosting the #4 seeds and the #2 seeds hosting the #3 seeds in each division. The series format in both the divisional semi-finals and divisional finals will be a best of three series, with the higher seeded team as the host for each series.
The winners will then advance to the 3HL Championship Tournament, which will feature the four divisional playoff winners battling for a shot at the 3HL crown in a round-robin style format. The 3HL Championship Tournament will take place from March 29-April 2 at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois. Here is a look the 3HL playoff match-ups:
#4 Minnesota Flying Aces (21-24-3, 45 pts.) @ #1 Granite City Lumberjacks (33-11-4, 70 pts.)
Breakdown: The Flying Aces come into their series against the Lumberjacks having lost their last five regular season games, giving up 29 goals in that span. The Flying Aces allowed the second most goals per game of anyone in the 3HL. Meanwhile, the West Division Champion Lumberjacks have the league’s stingiest defense and the league’s #1 goalie in Matt Grove. Granite City also posted a 7-0-1 record against Minnesota this year, with the lone blemish coming in a shootout loss all the way back on October 14th. Granite City’s Peter Lindblad finished tied for 2nd in 3HL scoring with 67 points and the Lumberjacks come into the playoffs posting a 7-1-1 record in their last nine games. The Lumberjacks also had the league’s most potent special teams, leading the 3HL in both power play and shorthanded goals scored.
#3 Twin City Steel (24-21-3, 51 pts.) @ #2 North Iowa Bulls (29-15-4, 62 pts.)
Breakdown: The Bulls have won seven out of their last eight games and posted an impressive 7-1-0 record against the Steel this season, which included a 6-5 win at Twin City this past Friday. The Steel have showed glimpses of being a team that can be one of the best in the 3HL this season, having won the 3HL Showcase back in December. Both Twin City and North Iowa are 1 and 2 in the league in coming from behind when trailing after two period. However, the key to this season may be the penalty box. Twin City had more penalty minutes than anyone in the division and the third most in the league. However, they had the best road penalty kill, which will be put to the test against the North Iowa power play, which was 4th best at home in the 3HL this season.
#4 Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins (26-19-3, 55 pts.) @ #1 Flint Jr. Generals (35-10-3, 70 pts.)
Breakdown: The 3HL’s East Division was the only division in the league that featured all four teams that finished above .500 in the standings. With that said, both the 2 vs. 3 match-up and the 1 vs. 4 match-up should be entertaining and may have the best potential to go all three games given the regular season records between the opponents. Despite being the division’s #4 seed, Pittsburgh has won three of its last four games against the Jr. Generals. The two teams split in Pittsburgh last weekend, setting up what is to be an entertaining set of playoff games in Flint this weekend. Flint ranks in the top 5 in both power play and penalty kill and did post a 5-2-1 record against Pittsburgh this season. However, the series may hinge on Flint’s ability to stay out of the box, as Pittsburgh’s power play ranks 3rd. If not that, there is always the experience factor as Pittsburgh enters the playoffs with the youngest team in the 3HL.
#3 Metro Jets (29-17-2, 60 pts.) @ Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks (32-12-4, 68 pts.)
Breakdown: In yet another case of two teams facing off in the playoffs who happened to play one another last weekend, Metro will take the trip around Lake Erie to face the Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks. Cleveland posted a 5-1-2 record during the regular season against the Jets, including taking three of four points this past weekend. The Jr. Jacks were the 3HL’s hottest team out of the game, winning 20 of their first 21 games to start the season. They also feature the league’s top scorer in Cameron Dimmitt and the league’s #1 offense. It all makes for what is expected to be a high-scoring series because Metro counters with the league’s #2-ranked offense led by forward Steve Klisz, who ranked tied for 2nd in the 3HL in both points and goals. Mike MacKinnon also adds some offensive depth and firepower for the Jets, but the series may hinge on the Cleveland goaltending duo of Alex Larson and Lawrence Dvorak Jr. and which goaltender will get the nod.
#4 Battle Creek Jr. Revolution (0-48-0, 0 pts.) @ #1 Toledo Cherokee (31-15-2, 64 pts.)
Breakdown: Battle Creek enters the playoffs still seeking their first win of the season. They will play their first game in Toledo since October 22nd. Although winning a five or seven game series against an opponent whom you have yet to defeat is a terribly daunting task, winning two out of three is much more manageable. It will be a tall order against a Toledo team who was the only team in the North Division to finish above .500 and who enters the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Cherokee forward Joe Skrzynkski finished in the top 7 in both points and goals in the 3HL this season. Battle Creek has shown signs of being able to generate some offense, especially lately. During their final regular season weekend of the year, the Revolution fired off a combined 84 shots in two games. Toledo did lead the 3HL in penalty minutes so they will have to stay disciplined, especially if they want to make the final four in Chicago.
#3 Michigan Mountain Cats (13-32-3, 29 pts.) @ #2 Queen City Steam (21-25-2, 44 pts.)
Breakdown: if the regular season was any indication, then the division semi-final series between Michigan and Queen City should be one of the closest and entertaining of the opening round. Each team posted four wins in eight games against one another this season. In those eight games, Michigan scored 26 total goals and Queen City scored 24 total goals. Michigan is led by the 3HL’s leading goal scorer in James Koonce, who led the league with 32 goals during the regular season. Queen City comes into the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak. Their success is thanks in large part to a collective team balance and attack. They are one of only two teams without a top 40 scorer in the 3HL this season, yet have 16 active players who have scored in double digits this season. The series may boil down to goaltending with the Steam having to make a decision between Alex Lazarski or Joey Rebedew starting in goal, while Schuyler Ferguson will probably get the call for Michigan.
#4 Quad City Jr. Flames (14-28-6, 34 pts.) @ #1 St. Louis Jr. Blues (31-12-5, 67 pts.)
Breakdown: Quad City had some hard luck this year, leading the 3HL in overtime and shootout losses. On December 18th, the Jr. Flames were two games over .500. Since that point, they have won just once in their final 19 games heading into the playoffs. Quad City has proven they can beat St. Louis this season, posting a 3-5-0 record against the Jr. Blues this season. Meanwhile, St. Louis has lost just four times in regulation since December 6th. The Jr. Blues have won their last four meetings with Quad City, but the games have been close with each being decided by two goals or less. Mike Meadows is going to have to solid in goal if Quad City wants to advance. St. Louis forward Johnny Mueller has been on fire the last 10 games for St. Louis, who is last year’s 3HL regular season champs and who won the league playoff championship back in 2010.
#3 Peoria Mustangs (22-23-3, 47 pts.) @ #2 Chicago Hitmen (23-21-4, 50 pts.)
Breakdown: Last’s years 3HL playoff Champion, Chicago, is back and ready to defend their title edging out Peoria for home ice and the #2 seed in the Central playoffs. Like the 2 vs. 3 match-up in the North Division, the regular season series between Chicago and Peoria was literally dead-even, with each team winning four games against one another. In the eight games, Chicago outscored Peoria, 22-20. Both team’s offenses rank toward the bottom of the 3HL, so this series has all the trademarks of a defensive showdown. Both goalies Joe Olen (Chicago) and Mike Meadows (Quad City) rank in the top 10 in the 3HL in save percentage so scoring will be at a premium. It will be to no one’s surprise if this series ends on Sunday, going to full three games.