#USPHLNationals Premier Team Preview: Utica Jr. Comets 

By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com 


For only the second time in the seven-year history of the USPHL Premier Conference, a team will be able to play their Nationals games on their home ice. 

The Islanders Hockey Club qualified and were hosts for the ultimately canceled 2020 event. The Northern Cyclones had both their Premier and Elite teams at the 2022 Nationals and the Utica Jr. Comets will be part of the Premier National Championships this year at their home Utica University Nexus Center. 

“Nationals being in Utica is something we talked about a lot this season with our team,” said General Manager Jason Shaya. “We’ve been laser focused on getting to this position. While it’s true that we are in our home building, we are also aware this will be the best competition the team has faced all season long.

“The staff at the Utica University Nexus Center did an absolutely phenomenal job last season. We are thrilled to finally be involved as a team,” he added. 

The Jr. Comets finished first overall in the New England Division during the regular season, earning the Jr. Comets the division’s only first round bye. They finished 36-6-1-1, the franchise’s best finish in the current USPHL Premier’s existence going back to 2017-18. In their sole playoff series, they took a seventh-seeded Boston Junior Bruins team that had vastly upset the No. 2 Northern Cyclones – also the defending National Champion from 2023. They won two 5-3 games on March 6 and 7, also at the Utica University Nexus Ceter. 

“We are beyond thrilled to qualify for Nationals. The fact that it’s in our building makes it even more special. We worked hard to qualify and I know our team is ready to do our city proud,” Shaya said. “We are a relatively young team. We were concerned they would be overwhelmed by the gravity of being in a playoff game and having expectations foisted on them by being the No. 1 seed in the division. In both games, there were good moments and bad moments. At this point in the season, it’s more about navigating emotions of the players rather than executing a game plan. Overall, the result is what we expected. And now we’re ready for the next step.”

Utica got four-point series out of three of their top four regular season scorers – Jake Hall, Issa Murakami and Sean Tyrie – while Tighe Frazee also had four points against the Junior Bruins. Goalie Dylan Eliason, who played in the 2023 Nationals with the Metro Jets, went 2-0 in net while stopping 50 of 56 shots. 

There is/was exactly two weeks between their series win on March 7 and Game 1 at Nationals on March 21. The coaching staff, which includes NCDC Jr. Comets Head Coach Louis Educate, were staying very practical and precise in their approach to the break. They’ve done it before, with a 20-day break between games from Nov. 10 to Dec. 1, and 24 days between games from Dec. 13 to Jan. 6. There were also 11 days that passed between their last regular season game on Feb. 24 and Game 1 against the Junior Bruins. 

“With so much downtime between the final playoff game in the division, and the opening games of nationals, the most difficult part is keeping the team focused while we practice each day,” said Shaya. “So far, we are doing our best to mix in high-intensity skates, along with giving them ample time off. We all know the real work begins next week and there won’t be a break until it’s the very last game, which we hope to play for a National Championship.” 

In Game 1 of the 2023-24 regular season, the Jr. Comets defeated the No. 1 overall seed Connecticut Jr. Rangers, giving them one of their only three losses on the season. They also put up a 3-1-0-0 record against fellow New England Division representatives the Islanders Hockey Club. Their only other meetings with Nationals teams included a win over the Metro Jets Development Program and a loss to the Metro Jets, both of those coming at the February Northern Cyclones Showcase. 

“We had a chance to play the Metro Jets earlier this season at a showcase game. In my estimation, they are a cut above,” said Shaya. “There’s also no doubt that Charlotte and Potomac are going to be extremely difficult to beat. The fact is, no team gets to this point without having something special about them. In the end, we hope that we play to our potential. That’s all we ask of our players each and every game. I’m proud of them regardless of the outcome.”