By Brendan Price / USPHLElite.com
Tampa Bay Juniors
Seed: Florida #2
Round Robin Schedule
All Games to be played at Utica University Nexus Center
Game 1: Thursday, March 23, vs. Carolina Jr. Hurricanes, 11 a.m. EST
Game 2: Friday, March 24, vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, 5 p.m. EST
Game 3: Saturday, March 25, vs. Islanders Hockey Club, 7:30 p.m. EST
Defense was the name of the game in the semi-finals series that punched the Tampa Bay Juniors ticket to Nationals. Allowing just four goals in two games to a potent Palm Beach squad, head coach Garrett Strot believes that key unlocked and will continue to bring success for the Juniors.
“[They] played well at both ends of the ice; they shut down Palm Beach’s top line, which was one of the best in the league,” Strot said.
In 23 of their 44 regular season games, the Juniors’ defense allowed two goals or fewer and finished eighth overall in the Elite Division in goals allowed, surrendering just 2.70 goals per game.
Goaltender Jonathan Jensen was, pardon the pun, elite for Tampa Bay in 2022-23. The Largo, Fla., product finished tied for fourth in wins (13) and punctuated the team’s semi-final sweep over the Typhoon with a 26-save masterpiece in Game 2.
Jensen shared the crease with starter Dylan Bruce, who finished with a sparkling .921 save percentage in 24 appearances. The goaltending tandem was anthemic of Tampa Bay’s strength in numbers; the 27-win squad did not have a single player in the league’s top-50 in scoring, a feat unique among the qualifying field for Nationals.
“The strength of the Elite team is our depth. We have four lines and three sets of defensemen that we can roll with,” Strot pointed out.
Owing to that point, the Juniors’ had twelve skaters reach the 20-point plateau and six different goal-scorers record at least 10 goals. The Juniors’ balanced lineup featured an incredible 21 rookies in 2022-23, highlighted by a 2004-birth year forward and a pair of 2005-birth years.
Forward Ari Blatt (‘04) paced Tampa Bay in goals and points, with 42 (21-21-42) in 42 games. Hot on his heels were forwards Robert Sheets (‘05) and Brendan Sickles (‘05) with 36 points a piece; Sheets grabbed 18 goals (18-18-36) and Sickles grabbed 21 assists (15-21-36) en route to the tie for second in scoring.
However fearsome, the triumvirate failed to register a point in their meetings with Carolina during the regular season. The Jr Canes are the team that Strot believes have the slight edge in a balanced field of championship contenders.
“The Elite bracket is going to be wide open, but I feel Carolina is the top team to beat,” Strot remarked.
Despite not recording a regular season win over the Jr. Canes, a wide-open bracket should favor the Juniors. Strot’s squad notched victories over seven different opponents during the 2022-23, including three over fellow Nationals qualifier Florida.
The Juniors are back to Nationals for a second straight year and look to continue the program’s run of success by marking a program milestone in Utica.
This is very big for our program to send both [Premier & Elite] teams. The last time both teams went to Nationals at the same time was 2017-18,” Strot said.
The Juniors’ Elite journey opens with a tough pool play matchup: the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes squad that Strot mentioned earlier.