By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
Atlanta MadHatters (2) vs. Tampa Bay Juniors (3)
All games played at Fort Myers Skatium
Atlanta is home team for Games 1 and 3, Tampa is home for game 2
Game 1: Saturday, March 11, 7 p.m. EST
Game 2: Sunday, March 12, 4 p.m. EST
Game 3: Monday, March 13, 7 p.m. EST (if necessary)
Talk about familiarity. The Tampa Bay Juniors and Atlanta MadHatters are facing each other for the fourth and fifth – and maybe sixth – times in a row. Tampa made a trip to Atlanta Feb. 24-26, and the MadHatters captured two of three.
Now they’re back at it yet again, and on the neutral ice of the Fort Myers Skatium. The MadHatters had their best season in their USPHL Premier history, putting up 52 points off a 24-16-3-1 record.
“We started slow but finished strong. We dealt with a lot of adversity but came together as a group and played hard for one another,” said Head Coach Paul Flache. “Our leadership is our strength and our group plays for each other.”
The MadHatters were the picture of veteran leadership. Leading scorer Ben Baker (56 points) is in his second season with the team. Top defenseman Owen Larson is in year No. 4, and Captain Gavin Graham is a third-year MadHatter. The list keeps going of returning MadHatters this year – Beau Depencier, Logan Gallagher, Ryan Parent, etc. They have so many battle scars from USPHL Premier hockey they could practically write the book on how to survive the league.
Don’t count out the Tampa Bay Juniors’ leaders however. In Wesley Chapel, the locker room saw many familiar faces as well. Three of the top four scorers were returning players, in Connor Nelson (49 points), Beau Courneya and A.J. Beugen, in addition to veterans like Jonah Mortenson, Artjoms Kadnikovs and Jack Fleer. They helped the Juniors put together a 25-18-1-0 record. It was only Atlanta’s second win to end the season and that last series that put the MadHatters a point above the Juniors.
“We had an up and down season this year but a lot of it was injuries. Since Christmas we started getting everyone back and went on a little run and we feel good about where we are at,” said Head Coach Garrett Strot. “Our speed is what we have to use to be effective. We need to use that more with the puck but also when defending. This week we have also emphasized special teams.”
With so much in common, from their points total being one off and the long list of veterans to almost dead-even defensive numbers – 3.32 goals against this season for Atlanta vs. 3.34 for Tampa – there’s hard to find any room between these two teams. A three-game series would surprise exactly no one. Two games for one or the other would be more the shocker.
“This is going to be a tough series! They beat us four of six times, but outside of one game they have been close,” said Strot. “We have to be disciplined and stay out of the box as they have a very good power play.”
“TBJ is a class organization and very well coached,” Flache added. “It’s going to be a tough series and hopefully we can prove Dan K wrong.”