Eastern Hockey League – EHLP Playoff Preview: Play-In Games Kick Off Road To Frozen Finals

Anthony DiPaolo
Anthony DiPaolo
Anthony Di Paolo has been working in various levels of hockey over the last five years, ranging from juniors to the pros. Di Paolo spent four seasons as the Communications Director and play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Titans of the North American Hockey League (2016-2020), and is entering his fifth season in a similar role with the New Jersey 87’s of the Eastern Hockey League. Graduating from Seton Hall University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, the New Jersey native covered Division I athletics for his school’s radio station, WSOU, and spent two years writing for the Fischler Report, a newsletter run by U.S. Hockey Hall-of-Fame inductee Stan Fischler.

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The 2023 Eastern Hockey League Premier Division postseason is here. 

All 15 teams will get an opportunity to compete for the EHLP portion of the Frozen Finals in Providence, RI. Each division consists of five teams, meaning a play-in round between the number 4 and 5 seeds, then a divisional semi final and final.

The winners of the New England Division, Boston Division and Mid-Atlantic Division will punch their ticket to Providence. An at-large bid will be given to the divisional runner-up with the best record.

While the Boston Jr. Rangers will look for a repeat, many other teams are in the mix, including a few expansion programs. Here’s a preview of the first round matchups.

North Division

#1 Adirondack Jr. Thunder (30-6-6) vs. #4 New Hampshire Avalanche (24-14-4) /#5 Connecticut Chiefs (14-25-3)

Season Series: Thunder 2-1-2 vs. Avalanche / Thunder 4-1-0 vs. Chiefs

Jack Merkosky

Why the Thunder will win: Out of five expansion teams in the EHL and Premier Division, Adirondack had the best inaugural season by winning the New England Division and finishing the regular season on a 17-0-1 stretch. Jack Merkosky led the team and league with 80 points (29g, 51a) and Andrew Blanchard led the team with 35 goals. Overall, six players for Adirondack recorded 30 or more points as the team scored 206 goals, the most in the EHLP. Kian Hodgins finished the regular season with a 16-3-3 record in net with a .909 save percentage. This team has a little bit of everything, including speed, size, skill and grit, making them a favorite for the Frozen Finals. It will be a tough road in a stacked New England Division, but head coach and AHL hall-of-famer Glenn Merkosky has done an admirable job leading his team in Glens Falls, it would be no surprise to see them in Providence.

Why the Avalanche will win: Last year, the Avs made it all the way to the Championship Sunday before losing to the Boston Jr. Rangers in overtime. While they are slated for the play-in round, New Hampshire ended the regular season with a .619 points percentage and 21-point lead over the fifth-place Connecticut Chiefs. Zach Needham, Hunter Atkinson and John D’Errico all reached the 50-point plateau while three more forwards reached 40 or more points. Alex Gerard started most of New Hampshire’s games, picking up 15 wins and three shutouts in the process. If New Hampshire wins the play-in game, they’ll go toe-to-toe with Adirondack, where both teams finished with a 2-1-2 mark against each other.

Why the Chiefs will win: Connecticut had the misfortune of playing in an otherwise loaded New England Division, finishing the season with 14 wins. That being said, the Chiefs did open their season series against the Avalanche with a 2-1 shootout win in the Worcester Showcase, so an upset here wouldn’t be that unheard of. Jordan Palacio led the team with 34 points (16g, 18a) and Michael Holland 22 points in 28 games since going from the Railers to the Chiefs. Jordan Nicolucci and Hunter McNichol finished with .916 and .914 save percentages respectively, though Barr Bialik led the trio with 829 minutes played. Any one of them could start in the play-in game against New Hampshire, and whoever it is, they’ll have to stand on their head if they want to pull off the upset.

Brendan Manning

#2 Vermont Lumberjacks (29-12-1) vs. #3 New England Wolves (25-11-6)

Season Series: Lumberjacks 4-0-0 vs. Wolves

Why the Lumberjacks will win: Vermont made it to the semifinals in Providence last year, and followed that up with a second-place finish in the New England Division. Brendan Manning led the team with 65 points (26g, 39a) while Justin Prim and Peppi Delliquadri both surpassed 50 points. Defenseman Oliver Hertzberg proved to be solid acquisition from the Chiefs, recording 13 points in 12 games with Vermont. Caiden Boucher and Vincent Parent shared the net for most of the regular season, and both goalies have a save percentage above .920. The Lumberjacks won all four games against the Wolves in the regular season, and if they can continue that trend, they’ll be on track for a trip back to Providence.

Why the Wolves will win: What a turnaround for the Wolves’ EHLP team; going from 10 wins last season to a 25-11-6 record in the 2022-23 season. What’s even more impressive, most of their best players are ’06 birth years, which could bode well for the future of the program. That includes Domeniks Domokejevs, who led the team with 52 points (26g, 26a). RJ Sember returned for another solid year, scoring 18 goals, while his younger brother and defenseman, Ryan, recorded 36 points in 38 games. Despite going winless against the Lumberjacks this year, all four games were decided by one goal with three of them going into overtime. A little bit of puck luck could make all the difference for the Wolves to advance to the second round.

Boston Division

#1 Boston Jr. Rangers (34-7-1) vs. #4 Seahawks Hockey Club (15-24-3) /#5 Express Hockey Club (9-30-3)

Drake Tomak
Jr. Rangers

Season Series: Jr. Rangers 4-1-0 vs. Seahawks / Jr. Rangers 6-0-0 vs. Express

Why the Jr. Rangers will win: The 2022 EHLP champions are 2023 regular-season champions, and a favorite for the Frozen Finals once again. Drake Tomak led the offensive attack with 67 points and a league-best 38 goals. Charlie Mulligan and defenseman Cam Arakelian both finished the season with 40-plus points, and Nicholas Mutschler posted a 12-2-0 record with a .931 save percentage. The Jr. Rangers are a well-rounded team without many weaknesses. Their power play was middle of the pack at 16.9 percent, but they made up for it with the best penalty kill at 87.8 percent while scoring a league-best 14 shorthanded goals. Also, by winning the regular-season title, getting past the Seahawks or Express will guarantee the Rangers a trip to the Frozen Finals.

Why the Seahawks will win: The Seahawks struggled in the final stretch of the regular season, losing 12 straight to end the year. Still, there were plenty of positives for the EHLP team in Cape Cod, including Atticus Beane finishing second in the league scoring race with 69 points (31g, 38a). Max Greco (19g, 20a) and defenseman Zach Micciche (7g, 22a) were also big contributors for the Seahawks’ offense. Their power-play was fifth best in the league at 20.3 percent while the penalty kill was right behind Boston at 87 percent. If the Seahawks get past the Express in the play-in game, they could certainly put up a fight against the Jr. Rangers; their lone win against Boston was a 5-1 victory in November.

Why the Express will win: The Express had a tumultuous season with nine wins, but hope is not lost. Jonah Burd led the team with 46 points (24g, 22a) while Ben Douglas reached 30 points and Hudson Perry scored 18 goals. Nick Piazza won seven games in the regular season while earning one shutout; he also led the league with 873 saves. His ability to handle a higher workload could come in handy when they face the Seahawks, but the Express could also capitalize given the Seahawks’ late-season struggles. The play-in round is such a toss-up, so don’t write off the Express as a one-and-done.

Mike O’Malley
Railers JHC

#2 Railers Jr. Hockey Club (31-9-2) vs. #3 Valley Jr. Warriors (19-17-6)

Season Series: Railers 3-2-0 vs. Warriors

Why the Railers will win: The Railers have dominated the EHLP over the last three seasons, including a run to the Final in 2021, but are still looking for their first championship. Six different players scored at least 30 points while Michael O’Malley led the offense with 40 points (23g, 17a). In goal, Dom Walecka and Aidan Healey each won 12 games and combined for four shutouts. The Railers have some momentum on their side with a five-game winning streak to end the regular season, and they’ll hope to get past the Railers for a potential rematch against the Jr. Rangers.

Why the Jr. Warriors will win: While the Jr. Rangers and Railers were fighting for the top spot in the Boston Division, the Jr. Warriors quietly had a solid season in the EHLP, finishing above hockey .500. Matt Devin led the team with 25 goals and 40 points, and four other players reached double digits in goals. Anthony Beaulieu and Michael Del Trecco combined for 17 wins, and both goaltenders had a save percentage of .910 or higher. A first-round matchup against the Railers won’t be easy, but they did pick up two wins against them including a 2-1 road win in early February.

Mid-Atlantic Division

#1 New Jersey 87’s (30-8-4) vs. #4 Philadelphia Little Flyers (13-28-1) /#5 Union Jr. Thunder (5-36-1)

Season Series: 87’s 6-1-0 vs. Little Flyers / 6-1-0 vs. Jr. Thunder

Why the 87’s will win: After winning the 2021 EHLP title, the 87’s finished .500 in the 2021-22 season and were knocked out by the Little Flyers. They bounced back this year by earning the number one seed in the division while scoring the second-most goals in the league and having the best goal differential at plus-97. Long-time 87 Ivan Borisov led the team with 43 points (22g, 21a), and 14 different skaters recorded at least 20 points. Jason LoRicco picked up 12 wins in goal with a .917 save percentage, and rookie goaltender AJ Golden earned 11 wins while posting a .929 save percentage. On top of their regular-season dominance, the 87’s have two members from that 2021 championship team in Borisov and Robert Calice, where that veteran leadership could lead them to Providence.

Why the Little Flyers will win: After making it to Providence in 2022, the Little Flyers have struggled in the 2022-23 regular season and will host the play-in game against Union. Ian Finley, Dan Lawless and Zachary Ruffenach led the offense as they all reached the 20-point mark while John Shelton and AJ Basich were rock solid on the blue line. Philadelphia also finished second in the league with 11 shorthanded goals and a penalty kill rate of 87 percent. Their win against the 87’s was early in the season, but if they get past the Jr. Thunder in the play-in round, this team could certainly get motivated to play a long-time division rival.

Why the Jr. Thunder will win: Out of all the expansion teams, Union had the roughest season by picking up just five wins. But just like the Express, let’s not write this team off right away. Team captain Tyler Gobel led the Thunder with 18 goals and 26 points while Ethan Potash recorded 20 points (10g, 10a).  Matt January, Dean Ponik and Kevin McHale also reached double digits in points, while goaltender Aiden Meeker recorded three wins and a .900 save percentage. It should also be noted that Union ended the 87’s 10-game winning streak with a 3-2 victory in the Philadelphia mini showcase, so maybe they can keep that going and shock some teams in the postseason.

Ryan Arendes
PA Huntsmen

#2 Pennsylvania Huntsmen (25-14-3) vs. #3 New Jersey Renegades (12-26-4)

Season Series: Huntsmen 6-2-0 vs. Renegades

Why the Huntsmen will win: Pennsylvania’s inaugural season wasn’t as eye-popping as Adirondack’s, but the Huntsmen managed to make their mark in the EHLP by finishing second in the Mid-Atlantic. Ryan Arendes led the team with 33 goals and finished third in the league with 67 points. Reese Gilmore finished the season with 39 points (6g, 33a) and defenseman Conlan Carpenter notched 21 points from the blue line. Ty Jones won 17 games in goal while recording a .908 save percentage and three shutouts. Head coach Blaise Kilroy has done a remarkable job in his first season with the team, and they are favorites over the Renegades in this first-round matchup.

Why the Renegades will win: Two years ago, the Renegades pulled off a massive upset against the Little Flyers in a best-of-three series. Now they hope to the same against a different Pennsylvania team. Four different players recorded 20 points or more for the Renegades: Dylan Idland, Cameron Cherry, John Bellantoni and Justin Sergeant. Aidan Gambone finished the season in net with a .916 save percentage and two shutouts, though Aiden Chominsky finished the year with six wins and 724 saves. The overall record may not be flashy, but the Renegades have shown they can compete with any team, salvaging wins against the Huntsmen as well as going toe-to-toe with the Adirondack Jr. Thunder in the mini showcase in Philadelphia.

For more details regarding the 2023 EHL Premier Division playoffs, check out the Frozen Finals page here: https://www.easternhockeyleague.org/frozen-finals

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