By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com
Seed: Mid-Atlantic #2
Round Robin Schedule
All games played at Utica University Nexus Center, Utica, N.Y.
Game 1: Thursday, March 23, vs. Florida Eels, 10 a.m.
Game 2: Friday, March 24, vs. Northern Cyclones, 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, March 25, vs. Charlotte Rush, 12 p.m.
The Jersey Hitmen have returned to the USPHL Nationals after a one-year absence, and they certainly mean business.
The Hitmen come in having already been tested and had their backs against the wall, advancing to Utica off a three-game series with two one-goal victories against a New York Aviators team that was up 1-0 to start. Jumping into the round robin with that kind of pressure already overcome could be a major strength.
“The final series against the Aviators was exceptionally tough, very physical and losing the first game 5-2 didn’t help either. Afterwards, in the locker room, I likened the first game and the series to a boxing match. I told the guys ‘hey look, you just got punched in the face, your nose is broken and bloodied, your ears are ringing and your eyes are blurry – but there are two more rounds left, so let’s get to work,’” Raymond said.
“The boys took the words to heart and gave all they had for Games 2 and 3, where we were fortunate to get the W’s and earn the Nationals berth,” Raymond added. “I would like to thank the Aviator coaching
staff, along with their players for being such class acts and for giving us one hell of a series.”
Speaking of series, boy, did the Hitmen draw a doozy of a schedule at the brand new Utica University Nexus Center – two very strong No. 1 seeds out of the Florida and North Divisions, along with the No. 2 seed from the Southeast in Charlotte, a team that won the National title when the Hitmen were in Hampton Roads two years ago.
Even with a strong leadership group of veterans, none of today’s Hitmen were in Virginia in 2021, so they all know exactly just how tough it is to reach the Nationals and they’re going to leave absolutely nothing on the ice against some of the nation’s best.
“This will be the first trip to Nationals for every player on the team. We lost a heartbreaking three-game playoff series to the Rockets Hockey Club last year and were forced to watch on HockeyTV,” said Raymond. “Our vets didn’t forget the series loss and battled for all three games. The guys are of course excited but very aware of the challenge that lies ahead of them. The Hitmen take great pride in developing hard-nosed, mentally tough hockey players. A rigorous on and off ice regimen, video review and a commitment to everyone pulling the sled as one, is how we operate.”
This year, that was exemplified by 25 Hitmen players registering points – and 23 of those 25 scored at least one goal. They didn’t have a player in the top 20 in scoring, but their dizzying “next man up” approach to offense saw seven players with 20 or more points and 14 in double digits.
“The guys are ready and looking forward to giving all they have while playing against the best teams in the USPHL Elite Conference,” Raymond said.
The Hitmen’s top five scorers were returning veterans, so that right there shows you how much they’re willing to put in the work to lead by example. J.T. Verdino’s 36 points were just ahead of defenseman Matt DiCarlo and Edward Asante both scoring 30. Veterans Nicholas Cioce (24 points) and Colin Reis (22 points) rounded out that top five.
Even more players jumped into the offensive leadership role in the Aviators series.
“Gordon Shindelman was a freight train that wouldn’t be denied two goals in Game 1. I’m convinced that ‘Shindy’ lit the fuse for Game 2 – Marshall Curri (two assists), Nick Cioce (one assist), Devin England (two goals) and Tommy Styles with two goals, including an overtime game winning bomb that got us to Game 3,” added Raymond.
“Game 3 turned into a barn burner. Up to the task were Devin England (one goal), Capt. Matt DiCarlo (one assist), Tommy Styles (one goal and 1 assist), Nikolai ‘Bugsy’ Yelabugin (one assist), Colin Reis (one assist) and J.T. Verdino (one goal) with the game-winning missile that punched our ticket to the show. And let’s not forget about Goaltender Frankie Smith, who was in great form for all three games. Frankie tallied a .937 save percentage in the series and came up big when we needed him most.”
Smith was a top 10 goaltender this year in the Elite, putting up a 10-5-3-1 record with a .926 save percentage, good for eighth in the league. He also saw the eighth most shots in the league at 755, playing 10th most minutes (1,153).
The Hitmen went into their pre-Nationals week focused on just getting as many reps in as possible to be ready.
“We’re certainly not going to tip our hand but rest assured we’re watching opponent video, looking for any tendencies and implementing some minor adjustments that will have us focused and game ready,” added Raymond. “Practice, film review and more practice sound like great activities to me. We’re not going on vacation – we’re headed to Utica to battle and compete for a championship as hard as we can, 212 degrees. Several of these teams are annual participants in the Nationals tournament and know what it takes to win. Our guys need to be firing on all cylinders, for every shift and – in loving memory of Mariann Reiss – with ‘no excuses.’”