By Patrick Ramsdale/USPHL.com
Utica Jr. Comets (3) vs. Hershey Cubs (6)
All games at Nexus Center, Utica
Friday, March 3, at 7 p.m. EST
Saturday, March 4 at 7 p.m. EST
Sunday, March 5 at 1 p.m. EST
The Utica Jr. Comets will host the Hershey Cubs at the Nexus Center starting on Friday for a best-of-three series. This series is a rematch from last year, when these two teams met in the former Atlantic West playoffs.
Utica took Game 1 of that series in overtime, while a four-goal second period in Game 2 helped the Cubs even the series. Utica took Game 3 but ultimately fell to a dominant Wilkes-Barre/Scranton squad the following round.
Utica finished the season on a five-game win streak with two big wins over the Rockets Hockey Club, bringing their record to 30-11-3. Since the start of 2023, the Jr. Comets have amassed a record of 17-4-1, including a full series sweep of the Rockets Hockey Club and a thrilling overtime win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on January 8.
“I like the way we’ve played since the start of the new year and we look to keep it trending in the right direction and take it up a notch for playoffs,” said Jr. Comets head coach Nick Pagliacci.
JD Speer (‘02/Hamilton, N.Y.) and Sean Tyrie (East Quogue, N.Y.) have traded place at the top of Utica’s leader board all season long, finishing the year with 67 and 66 points respectively. Caleb Turner (‘03/College Station, Pa.) finished just outside the 60-point club with 24 goals and 35 points for 59 points.
Seventeen-year-old Tieto Ishigaki (‘05/Tokyo, Japan) proved that he can put up big numbers in the USPHL as well, registering 40 assists while netting 18 goals for 58 points.
Pagliacci believes this scoring depth will be the key to a series win over Hershey.
“I think our team is playing fast and structured. We’re getting contributions from our entire lineup,” Pagliacci said. “We have a ton of depth that we will use to our advantage during this series.”
The Jr. Comets swept the season series against the Cubs but know that Hershey plays with a style that is difficult to play against.
“I expect Hershey to play a hard-nosed game,” said Pagliacci. “They’re a team that battles for 60 minutes no matter what the score is.”
Hershey enters the playoffs looking to flip the script from last year’s playoffs. Head Coach Brennan Thompson led the second-year program into its second playoff appearance and knows
that his team can compete with any team in the USPHL.
“We have shown it in spurts and games throughout the season,” Thompson said. “When we stay mentally focused and keep our effort level up, we are a very strong team. If we can do that for a full 60 minutes, execute our game plan, and capitalize on our chances this weekend, we will give ourselves a good chance to take the series this weekend.”
Ayden Frolik (‘03/Flower Mound, Tex.) leads the Cubs in scoring with 27 goals and 19 assists for 46 points. The team has also found scoring from rookies Aeryk Lehrhaupt (‘04/Line Lexington, Pa.) who has netted 23 goals and 32 points, as well as Geoffrey Bokor (‘02/Ellwood, Pa.) who has recorded 27 points this season.
Hershey knows that Utica has capitalized on the mistakes of other teams all season long and has been focusing on slowing down the pace and controlling the game.
“We can’t give them extra opportunities in games because they are good at capitalizing,” said Thompson. “If we can limit their chances and our mistakes, and find ways to slow them down, we will be just fine. They are a skilled team, but we have to be the harder working team to give us the best chance to win.”