Juniors Journal: Rockets off to Cinderella start in AJHL playoffs
by Shawn Hutcheon/Contributor
The postseason is in full swing in the Eastern and Atlantic Junior Hockey Leagues. Each circuit is down to its own version of the Final Four and two New Jersey teams are still in the hunt.
It would not be a stretch to say the AJHL saw one of the biggest upsets in the league playoff history during this year’s quarterfinals when the seventh-seeded New Jersey Rockets faced an immense challenge in taking on second seed and three-time defending President’s Trophy champion Walpole Express in a best-of-three series in Walpole, Massachusetts. It was expected that Walpole would sweep the Rockets but New Jersey had other plans and eliminated the Express in two games by scores of 3-2 and 3-1. Nolan Aibel (Brookville, N.Y.) scored one goal and two assists in the series opener while teammate Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.) registered three assists.
In Game 2, the Rockets’ Kyle Fargesen (Manalapan, N.Y.) assisted on two of his club’s three tallies and netminder Anton Yanin turned aside 31-of-32 Express shots to seal the victory and an invitation to the AJHL’s semifinals where they will try to do it again and eliminate the league’s regular season champion Northern Cyclones.
If you are a regular reader of this journal, you are already aware of New Jersey’s juggernaut known as the Jersey Hitmen. The Hitmen ended the Eastern Junior Hockey League season with the best record in the circuit by winning 39-of-45 contests. This club is the clear favorite to win the EJHL playoff title and have not given any reasons for fans, coaches and scouts to think otherwise.
Jersey drew a bye into the quarterfinals, where they faced off against the upstart New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs. The Jr. Monarchs were coming off a two-game upset sweep of the Springfield Jr. Pics and were hoping to repeat the upset against the Hitmen.
Jersey proved to be too strong for New Hampshire and moved on to the semifinals by being victorious in two games, 9-1 and 8-0. Jack Riley (West Point, N.Y.) led the way for Jersey by scoring five goals and three assists in the series. He is leading the playoffs in scoring entering the next round.
The Hitmen will be home for the semifinals hosting the Bay State Breakers, who pulled off the upset of all upsets in the EJHL’s quarterfinals by sending the Northern Division champion Boston Jr. Bruins home after two games in their series.
Game of the Week
As mentioned in last week’s column, this is the time of year when a game of the week becomes the series of the week and that honor will go to the New Jersey Rockets and Northern Cyclones. The clubs will face off in Game 1 of their best-of-three series Saturday night in Hudson, N.H., as the Cyclones will have home ice advantage throughout the matchup.
The players to keep an eye on will be Rockets goaltender Anton Yanin and forward Jeremy Bracco. Yanin is No. 1 among playoff puck stoppers with 1.50 goals-against average. He also carries a .949 save percentage. Bracco, just 15-years-old and this season’s AJHL Rookie of the Year, leads NJ with four points in two games. He has already committed to Harvard University for the 2015-2016 season.
Northern is a veteran team that has the AJHL’s Goaltender of the Year, J.J. Solloway, between the pipes. He trails only Yanin’s postseason goals-against average (2.00) and has a save percentage of .930. Forward Jonathan Felteau, the league’s Most Valuable Player and regular season scoring champion, enters the series with one goal and two assists after two playoff games. Forward Jurgen Koster posted three goals and two assists to be the leading point producer for Northern after the quarterfinals.
The seeds can be thrown out for this series. On paper, the Cyclones should not struggle with the Rockets. However, as we have learned, anything can happen in a short series and this will be as intense as it gets.
1) Jersey Hitmen (2-0-0) - Easily dispatched New Hampshire from the EJHL playoffs and will face off against the Bay State Breakers in this week’s semifinals. Jersey will host the two out of three series.
2) New Jersey Rockets (2-0-0) - Any team that can upset the defending three time champions has a legitimate chance of winning it all in the AJHL.
3) Rochester Jr. Stars (2-3-0) - Ended the regular EJHL season with momentum and high hopes for the postseason. The Jr. Stars eliminated New York Apple Core in three games but bowed out of the playoffs against the Islanders Hockey Club in two tilts.
4) New York Apple Core (1-2-0) - Pushed the EJHL playoff round versus Rochester to the three-game limit before seeing their season come to an end.
5) New York Bobcats (0-2-0) - The postseason was a short one for NYB and with the end of it, came the end of a disappointing season. The Bobcats jumped out to first place and looked to be one of the league’s elite squads but as the season moved along, New York finally slipped down to sixth place.
6) New Jersey Titans (0-0-0) - No playoffs gives the organization plenty of time to plan for the 2013-2014 season.