By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com
Jersey Hitmen (2) vs. New York Aviators (3)
All games at Ice Vault, Wayne, N.J.
Game 1: Friday, March 10, 8:45 p.m. EST
Game 2: Saturday, March 11, 7:30 p.m. EST
Game 3: Sunday, March 12, 5:30 p.m. EST (if necessary)
It’s Northern New Jersey vs. Brooklyn as the Jersey Hitmen play host to the New York Aviators with just one USPHL Nationals berth on the line between them. When these two teams meet, there is plenty of Nationals history between them. Jersey made it in 2019 and 2021, while the Aviators joined them in 2019 and also qualified for 2020, before that event was eventually canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizational memories run deep, so both teams will be looking to bring their team back to the big show, this year to be held in Utica, N.Y., between March 23-28, with the Elite Championship game being played on March 27.
The Hitmen and Aviators saw plenty of each other during the 2022-23 season – including just under a week ago, when the two teams closed the regular season on March 5. The Aviators won 4-3 in overtime, which is the very win that put them one point ahead of the Rockets Hockey Club into third and guaranteed the third seed.
That was also just the second win in the season series for the Aviators, who went 2-4 while the Hitmen finished with a 4-1-1-0 series record. Right now, the series record going into Friday night is the same record every team thinks about going into playoffs: 0-0.
Even if there’s the recent history that is less than a week old, nothing matters right now but Game 1. And only when that’s over will Game 2 matter. Both teams bring game-breakers, albeit in possibly different areas.
The Aviators bring a strong forward group that includes one of their Elite team’s best players ever in Edward Kienzle, a 76-point scorer this season who finished third in league scoring. Michael McGowan was not far behind at 70 points. The Hitmen may not have a top 20 scorer, but what they do have is a dizzying array of depth, so their opponents never could key in on one threat. Twenty-five different point-scorers registered for the Hitmen this year, and adding to the confusion is the fact they had three D-men in their top 10 of scoring – led by veteran Matthew DiCarlo with 30 points.
Goaltending is another key to victory for the Hitmen especially, as second-year backstop Frank Smith was a top 10 goaltender with a .926 save percentage.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how this series might go – the Aviators’ high-octane offense vs. the Hitmen’s no-nonsense D and goaltending? Speculation is just that, and is paper thin, because anything on paper (or a computer screen stats page) is just lip service until the puck drops and the strengths and weaknesses are played out in the right forum – the game itself.