Juniors Journal: Junior Stars peaking at right time
by Shawn Hutcheon/Contributor
Every hockey league has its elite teams. They are the clubs that are looked upon every preseason as the favorites to be in the postseason and as possible league champions.
As the season progresses, however one team emerges that does not get much recognition for its steady improvement. This year the Eastern Junior Hockey League has such a team and they hail from Rochester, New York.
The Rochester Jr. Stars began the season by losing five of their first ten games. Since then, they have just 10 regulation loss in 33 contests. The club has risen steadily in the circuit’s Northern Division and is now in fourth place with 50 points. With one week remaining in the regular season, Rochester appears to be headed to the postseason.
The Stars are focusing on continued improvement and carrying that improvement over to the postseason. Assistant coach Craig MacDonald believes there is no reason why that cannot happen for his club.
“I think we’re starting to come into stride,” MacDonald said. “This is the time of year you want to start peaking. There are still a few things we want to tighten up, but as a whole we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”
The coach acknowledged that leadership is another very important ingredient in any team’s march to a title and Rochester has a solid group of veterans the squad can rely on.
“We have a pretty good group of captains led by (Matt) Esposito (Syracuse, N.Y.), Jonathan Neal and Dylan Shapiro (Rochester, N.Y.),” said MacDonald “but we also have a group of younger guys who carry themselves well. We’re looking forward to the younger guys to come through for us as well.”
Of course, every team at every level of hockey needs strong goaltending. In a short playoff series, a netminder can win a game or two with his outstanding play. The Jr. Stars have such a player in Will Massey (Penfield, N.Y.). The 18-year-old goalie is ranks in the top ten among the circuit’s puck stoppers in minutes played, wins, shots against and saves.
MacDonald was direct and to the point when describing Massey.
“After each game, Will focuses on the next game and doing the best he can. He’s been great for us,” the coach said.
After a full season under their collective belts, the majority of the Jr. Stars will be rookies to the Eastern Junior Hockey League playoffs. The players can be told over and over again what to expect but as a coach MacDonald says, the main objective is for the team to be focused and limit mistakes. Doing that consistently could result in winning the Dineen Cup.
“You want to be ready,” MacDonald explained. “You don’t want to go into games flat. We realize the tempo of play will be higher. It’s important we limit almost all of our mistakes. Every shift, every play is important to the success of your team.”
Game of the Week
One matchup that will draw plenty of interest will take place on Feb. 25 and 26 at the Ice Works in Syosset, N.Y., when the New York Bobcats host the Walpole Express. This could be a playoff preview in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. The series could also have implications on where the clubs place in the final standings. The Bobcats could end the season in fifth place or sixth place while the Express could finish as high as second place or as low as fifth in the standings.
1) Jersey Hitmen (36-6-0-0-0) - After winning 24 consecutive Eastern Junior Hockey League games and clinching the overall regular season league title, the Hitmen lost to the Northern Division leading Boston Jr. Bruins. Jersey rebounded with a win the next day over South Shore. There are three games remaining on the schedule before embarking on the playoffs.
2) Rochester Jr. Stars (22-15-0-5-1) - Played five games in seven days last week. The Stars dropped three of them but all were one goal losses. Included in the two wins, was a victory over the Junior Bruins. Two contests remain on Rochester’s EJHL schedule.
3) New York Bobcats (22-14-2-1) - Qualified for the Atlantic Junior Hockey League playoffs by going 1-1-1 last week. The sixth place club has five games remaining, four will be at home.
4) New Jersey Rockets (18-18-5-1) - Will also see AHJL postseason action. The Rockets have two games to go before beginning their journey towards a possible league championship.
5) New York Apple Core (17-22-0-4-1) - Picked up one win and three losses last week but will qualify for the postseason play-in round of the EJHL playoffs. NYAC will wrap up the regular season Wednesday versus the Jersey Hitmen.
6) New Jersey Titans (13-25-3-0) - Three games remain in the Titans season. They have not qualified for the AJHL postseason.