By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com
Islanders Hockey Club
Seed: North #2
Round Robin Schedule
All Games At Utica University Nexus Center, Utica, N.Y.
Round Robin Schedule
Game 1: Thursday, March 23, vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, 7:30 p.m. EST
Game 2: Friday, March 24, vs. Carolina Jr. Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m. EST
Game 3: Saturday, March 25, vs. Tampa Bay Juniors, 7:30 p.m. EST
The Islanders Hockey Club Elite team has become a Nationals staple, reaching the big dance three straight times now. Hard to believe there wasn’t even an IHC program in place in 2019-20. It is all a testament to what Jay Punsky has been able to accomplish, taking a team from dormancy to Nationals within one year – all while simultaneously coaching the IHC Premier team. And being an assistant coach with Worcester State University. And being a father with a young family.
“Over the past several years we’ve really focused on having our Elite team serve as a development path for Premier, and our Elite level has continually gotten stronger for it,” said Punsky, whose Elite team went 32-6-2-3, finishing second in the North Division. “We’ve established a strong track record of bringing in young, talented players at the Elite level and then having them move into key roles on our Premier team the following season. After a year of development, these players bring with them the experience of playing big minutes in all situations, especially in the crunch time of playoffs and Nationals.”
To reach the Nationals this year, the Islanders went up against a tough Bridgewater Bandits team with some of the league’s top performers in various positions lining up for that squad. It’s a brand Punsky knows well, as he also coached the Bandits to an Elite Nationals appearance in 2018 and to the Premier Nationals in 2019 and 2020.
“Bridgewater was a tough opponent. They’re a tenacious group who works really hard in all three zones,” added Kevin Smith, Assistant Coach for Premier and Elite. “They certainly made us work for everything we got and I feel we’re more prepared now for Nationals having had to play a series like that. Our players have a much better idea of the intensity required for playoff hockey.”
The Islanders are set to face a pair of teams in the Round Robin they have not seen this year in the Tampa Bay Juniors (Florida #2) and Carolina Jr. Hurricanes (Southeast #1). They will kick off their round robin against the league regular season champions the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights. Against the Knights in showcases this year, the Islanders earned an 8-5 win on Oct. 2 at the BJB Shootout and fell in OT at the Rockets Hockey Club Showcase six days later.
“I’m excited for this group to have a chance to compete in Nationals this season. Having played some very difficult teams in our division this year – like the Cyclones, Bandits, etc. – as well as a challenging showcase schedule, I feel like this team has the potential to adapt to the faster pace required against the better teams across the country,” said Smith. “This is the third year in a row the program has qualified, and each year we’ve gotten more competitive. We have several players back from last year’s team who lost in the semifinals, as well as several others who have moved on to play for our Premier team this year. So I think that experience will be invaluable for the whole program, both Premier and Elite.”
When the Cyclones and Knights clash, it’ll be a showdown between the Elite’s two best offensive teams – the Knights averaging 5.88 during the regular season and the IHC posting 5.56. As offensively strong as the Islanders are, they didn’t have that trio of superstars that led the league in 2021-22. This year saw a much more balanced attack. The leading scorer Gabriel Leduc put up a 25-33-58, good for 14th in the league.
However, only three teams in the league had seven 40-point scorers on the final leaderboard, and the IHC was one of them – along with Nationals round robin opponents the Knights and the Southeast Division champion Carolina Jr. Hurricanes.
“The fun part about our team this year is that we have 4-plus lines that can all score. In our first round series against the Bandits we had 17 players register a point. A few of our leading scorers from that series were Logan Cavalcanti, Kenneth Bagley, and Declan Kelly – but on any given day anyone from our lineup can put the puck in the net,” Smith added. “On the back end, our top pairing of Connor Horn and Justin Pniewski both play a very strong two-way game.”
Smith, Punsky and both the IHC Premier and Elite teams will be busy working on sharpening every aspect of their game before making the trip next week to Utica.
“At this point of the season with this group, they play a very strong team game. The week leading up to Utica will be focused on touching up a few areas and also keeping a balance between proper rest and meaningful practice reps,” said Smith.
There will also be time set aside to just get together and enjoy each other’s company, so every player knows they’re going to the National Championships playing for the guy sitting next to him.
“This team is a very close group and will be getting together for a team event before we leave for Utica,” Smith added.