By Joshua Boyd / USPHL.com
Carolina Jr. Hurricanes (1) vs. Richmond Generals (4)
All games at Pineville Ice House, Charlotte
Carolina is home team for Games 1 and 3; Richmond home for Game 2
Game 1: Saturday, March 11, 8:30 a.m. EST
Game 2: Sunday, March 12, 8:30 a.m. EST
Game 3: Monday, March 13, 8:30 a.m. (if necessary)
For the first time in program history, the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes captured the Elite Southeast Division championship. It certainly wasn’t easy, especially in a division with the always-powerful Charlotte Rush, the defending National Champion Richmond Generals and a revitalized Potomac Patriots team all seeking the same regular season prize.
“This season was an amazing year. We set many franchise records, and some league records,” said Jr. Canes Head Coach Brad Gaylord. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group, as they learned our systems in practice and executed them on the sheet each weekend. I’m very proud of our special teams having the number 1 power play and the number 1 penalty kill in the entire league. These young men worked very hard all year and they deserve the recognition their getting. In the last seven games were great as a group. To be honest I am not surprised. Again these young men have bought into the culture of the Canes organization and the identity in which we play each night.”
In the end, a seven-game winning streak to close the season certainly put them over the edge, and they finished nine points ahead of second place Potomac.
The Jr. Canes’ prize is getting to face the aforementioned defending National Champs the Generals, beginning bright and early Saturday morning in Charlotte.
“I feel our transitional game, and the speed in which we attack with is our biggest strength. We work on this tirelessly each week,” said Gaylord. “I felt the games against the Generals this year were good. We had our moments of letting up and not sticking to our systems, however, that was quickly fixed.
“But all and all, for the exception of a few minutes in some of those games we had good pace and we executed well. Therefore, I’m very happy with their efforts for sure. As for what I’m expecting from Richmond, I expect they’ll be gunning for us and trying to take down the number one seed, any team would. That said, we just need to play our game like we have all year.
During the regular season, the Jr. Canes won the series with a 3-0-1-0 record, including a sweep as recently as Feb. 18-19. A team featuring some of the strongest performers on the statistical side of the Elite made good on their preseason promise. Brayden Strong, with 66 points, was a top 10 scorer in the league, and defenseman Colby Markham was a regular selection to Players of the Week and Players of the Month awards throughout the year. He finished as the league’s leading scorer among defensemen with 45 points, one point ahead of Atlanta’s Colby Sims in a close race for that honor.
Goaltenders Jacob Sanders and Pavel Matiunin finished literally one-thousandth of a percentage point apart in save percentage at .933 and .932, respectively – also both good for a top five spot.
They are facing a Richmond team that is in the somewhat rare situation of being the underdog with the targets on their backs as the defending title-holders from last year. Coach R.C. Lyke commented on what worked best for his team this year.
“I think [what worked best was] keeping guys healthy and mentally prepared to play in our games no matter what situation or obstacle we will face,” he said. “This group has learned that we are never out of any game and we always have a chance to win if we stick to our systems and everyone plays their roles.
“The biggest thing we will be working on is putting a system in place that will give us the best opportunity as a group to have success against Carolina,” Lyke said. “We will continue to work on sharpening and cleaning up our special teams play which will have a huge impact in this playoff series as well. “
Carolina rolled to a couple victories in February, but it was a very different situation in their earlier meetings in October. They split that weekend with two one-goal games, one an OT victory for Richmond on Oct. 30.
“Our first two games of the season, we thought we should have won both of those games and we outplayed them in Carolina. The last two games Carolina outplayed us and was the better team for both games in Richmond. Carolina is a very deep team this year with excellent team speed,” said Lyke. “We will need to slow their team speed down and not allow them to carry as many pucks with possession into our zone. I think puck management (limiting turnovers) especially with Carolina’s speed this year is going to be the key in this series.
“We need to manage the puck in all 3 zones and capitalize when we get our opportunities against the Canes. I am expecting an extremely fast and physical series where discipline and puck management will decide which team prevails in this series.”
No matter what happens this weekend, Lyke has massive admiration and respect for his 2022-23 group.
“I thought this year the season was up and down all year and our players faced a vast amount of adversity due to the major injuries to top players all season. This year, by far, was the worst in our program’s history in terms of major or season-ending injuries,” added Lyke. “At one point in the season we had six of our leading scorers and top two defensemen out of our lineup for over a third of the season or more.
“This is a resilient group and we learned a lot this year facing all the challenges that came from playing without key players all year long and the next man up mentality,” he said. “One thing about our group is we are a true family on and off the ice and that adversity we have faced throughout the year especially playing in the Southeast division has made us stronger and more prepared.”