By Brendan Price / USPHLPremier.com
Tampa Bay Juniors
Seed: Florida #2
Seeding Round Schedule
All games to be played at Utica University Nexus Center, Utica, NY
Day 1: Thursday, March 23, vs. Northern Cyclones, 8 p.m. EST
Day 2: Friday, March 24, vs. Las Vegas Thunderbirds, 8 p.m. EST
Remainder of schedule determined by results of seeding round
After two grinding victories in the Florida Division semifinals, Tampa Bay Juniors Head Coach Garrett Strot believed that the heart and perseverance displayed by his Premier team will have a huge impact in Utica.
“[They] played outstanding versus a very tough Atlanta team,” Strot stated.
“Our guys bought in and blocked 23 shots in the Game 2 clincher win,” he added.
The Juniors will make their return to Nationals as a representative of the Florida Division, marking the first time in three years that Tampa Bay has qualified for the championship. Coach Strot believes that the Juniors are primed for a deep run, owing to some favorable stylistic tendencies.
“We feel Nationals will be a good setup for both teams, especially the Premier. The South is so tough defensively where I feel northern teams play more up and down,” he added.
The stingy Juniors defensive and goaltending core allowed just 3.31 goals per game during the regular season, putting them just outside the top third of USPHL Premier squads in goals allowed. Goaltenders Onni Taskila and Blake Mons split the goaltending duties and both finished in double digits in wins, a combined .905 save percentage, and three shutouts. The Juniors fared very well outside their division in 2022-23, a key coming into Nationals, according to Strot.
“Our Premier team went 5-0 vs northern teams this season,” Strot offered.
Not only did the Juniors go 5-0 against teams from the northern part of the country, they can claim something that not many teams can: victories over the Metro Jets (5-1) and the Fort Wayne Spacemen (5-2) during the regular season. Taskila had one of his finest games of the season versus the Metro Jets, stopping 37 of 38 shots.
Mons shone with 18 saves in their victory over Fort Wayne.
With 10 goals in those two games, Strot credits that to his top line trio.
“The Premier team is driven by our first line of Jonah Mortenson, Connor Nelson and Beau Courneya. They are so hard on pucks all over the ice and set the pace for us,” Strot said.
Mortenson had five points (3-2-5) in four games against fellow Nationals opponents, punctuated by a two-goal outing versus the Jets. Acquired from Twin City in December, he helped solidify the Juniors’ offense with 27 points (16-11-27) in 21 games down the stretch.
Nelson took his game to another level against the top teams as well. The Woodbury, Minn., product had nine points (5-4-9) in ten games versus Nationals’ competition, part of his team-leading 49 points (26-23-49). Courneya enters Nationals on a season-long six game point streak, grabbing 10 points (1-9-10), and looking to close out his junior career with a statement at Nationals.
With a strong top line and goaltending duo that can shine, Strot and his team are ready for the challenge in the seeding round, facing Northern Cyclones and Las Vegas, and knows what this could mean for the Juniors.
“This is big for our program,” he concluded.