By Joshua Boyd / USPHL.com
Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
Southeast #1 Seed
Nationals Round Robin Schedule (All games at Utica University Nexus Center, Utica N.Y.)
All times EST
Thursday, March 23, vs. Tampa Bay Juniors, 5 p.m.
Friday, March 24, vs. Islanders Hockey Club, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 25, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, 5 p.m.
The Carolina Jr. Hurricanes’ 2022-23 regular season went very well – if not perfect. The team entered the new year of 2023 in first place in the USPHL Elite conference, but when the dust settled they claimed third overall.
They did win their first USPHL Elite Southeast Division championship, taking first in the division that has churned out every Elite Champion in the conference’s current format (going back to 2017-18). And, just to top that off, they won two playoff games and eliminated the defending National Champion Richmond Generals in the process.
“I felt the series went well. We knew they were going to run the 2-3 forecheck so we prepared for that for two weeks in practice,” said Head Coach Brad Gaylord. “As a team, we watched film on last year’s playoffs, so we were well prepared. Our special teams were great again, and a major contributor to our success in the series.
“As for beating the defending champs, we honestly didn’t look at it that way at all,” added Gaylord. “We just took the approach as it was two, possibly three, games and we needed to execute what we practiced.”
Carolina is making its first actual trip to Nationals, although they also qualified for the canceled 2020 National Championships in North Andover, Mass. Now that they get the chance to actually play in three guaranteed games and hopefully five (the fifth would be the National Championship game), you better believe the Jr. Canes are soaking in every moment.
“We are so proud of the current players and players in years past,” said Gaylord. “.These past few years, we made [Premier] Nationals and lost to the National Champs in overtime [the Charlotte Rush in 2021], so this program is making noise, and we couldn’t be more proud. We have many players reaching out to us which is great, and tells us we’re doing things right.“
They did things extremely well all year, including the most wins and points when scoring the first goal (33 and 67, respectively), the best power play (29.4 percent), the best penalty kill (89.6 percent), and the best overall defense (1.73 goals against, 26.66 shots against per game). The Jr. Canes hurt teams on so many fronts, and part of that is because they’re just so good at the root skill of hockey, skating.
“We expect the speed to be a little quicker, however, that’s what we want,” said Gaylord. “The faster game suits our style of play.
“We’ll watch film on all teams and make sure we understand how we need to play,” he added. “We’ll also practice our systems throughout the week [before we travel], and make sure everything is clean.”
Individually, the team finished with Brayden Strong reaching top 10 overall in scoring with his 66 points, first in power play points (29) and third in assists with 48. He also tied for the most shorthanded goals (four) and points (seven).
Blueliner Colby Markham was No. 1 at his position with 45 points, as well as the top assist-getter with 36. He also led the league with 18 assists and 21 power play points. Man-down, the leader among Carolina blueliners was Daniel Garcia Ortiz, who posted a league-leading three shorthanded points (all assists, also tied for the lead in that category).
The Jr. Canes had not one but two goaltenders in the top five of both goals against average and save percentage. Jacob Sanders led all goalies in GAA at 1.57 and was fourth in save percentage at .933, while Pavel Matiunin was fourth in GAA at 1.90 and fifth in save percentage at .932. Both tied for fifth with 13 wins apiece.
These players kept up their amazing performances, along with additional Jr. Canes who helped dispatch the Generals in a pair of games.
“Our team as a whole played fantastic. From the net on out, we executed what we practice and I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys,” said Gaylord. “But if I were to select a few players [who led us during the series], I would have to say Tristan Seney, Brayden Strong, Carter Radosta and Colby Markham.”
It’ll be a busy upcoming week in Morrisville, N.C., and then it’s bus time to Utica.
“We’ll practice through the week as a team and then head out Wednesday. The guys are ready to go. They want to practice like a normal week and off we go,” he added. “This is a very good group of young men, and they have nothing else on the mind other than a National Championship!”