The calendar year has flipped to 2024, and the Eastern Hockey League is coming out of its holiday break to start up the second half of the season, and with it a sprint to the Frozen Finals.
As the league gears up for its second half, here are some observations from the 2023 portion of the season as well as things to watch for in 2024.
Who will win the East?
The biggest story in the EHL so far is the dominance of the East Division. The top three teams have point-percentages well above .700, and the defending champion Boston Jr. Rangers lead the pack with a 20-7-0 record. Meanwhile the East Coast Wizards are tied for first with an 18-5-4 record and the Express Hockey Club is two points behind with a 19-5-0 record while having two games in hand. The Boston Jr. Terriers are not far behind with a 13-10-3 record—not too shabby for a first-year program.
That leads to the question: who will represent the East Division come March? The Jr. Rangers have a deep lineup that is led by a veteran forward group in Tay Melis (8g, 26a), Bret Beale (9g, 21a) and EHL goals leader Kaleb Miller (23g, 8a). Charles Watson is a brick wall in net with an 11-3-0 record and .946 save percentage, and backup goaltender Ayden Pierce has a 5-2-0 record with four shutouts.
For the Wizards, their 18 wins in the first have of this season already matched their entire 2022-23 season (18-20-8). A large part of their success stems from their much-improved offense from players like Will Rice (12g, 22a) and Casey Raffone (12g, 16a). George Kolovos only appeared in 16 of the team’s 27 games in the first half, but he’s scoring well above a point-per-game pace with 22 points (11g, 11a). Aidan O’Connell joined the team in November and has recorded at least a point in each of the 12 games he’s played in (11g, 10a).
Scoring has also been a strength for the Express this year as Gavin Simopoulos and Cody Walker have both hit the 30-point plateau, but their real strength is their goaltending. Josh Girard, Alex Koenig and Phillip De Champlain have all played at least 300 minutes so far this season and they all have save percentages of at least .927 or better. The trio have combined for five shutouts so far, including one each in the Newington showcase. They currently have a few games in hand over the Wizards and Rangers, meaning they could leap-frog into first place right out of the break.
Will someone derail the Railers?
For the last few seasons, the Railers Jr. Hockey Club has dominated the Central, and they went 22-4-1 in the first half of the season. Jack Wineman (19g, 16a) and Connor McAleer (13g, 18a) are scoring in bunches while defensemen Corbin Melie (8g, 16a) and Tristan Boyer (4g, 20a) are also racking up points from the blue line. Adam Casper and Aaron Matthews have 11 wins each in goal, and everything seems to be humming along for the Railers.
This year, however, they could have some serious competition as New York Apple Core is having a renaissance season. With a record of 18-8-1 at the holiday break, New York has already surpassed its win total from each of its previous five seasons. Five players have already scored 20 or more points: Nick Sweet, Peter Unger, Gleb Ushakov, Christopher Benkovitz and defenseman Davis Kinne. They also traded forward Anthony Vernillo to the Connecticut Chiefs in exchange for All-Star goaltender Ryan Crowshaw. The trade is already paying off massive dividends, as Crowshaw is 6-0-0 with New York with a 1.31 goals against average and .961 save percentage. At this point of the season, New York has shown they are for real, now the question is whether they can take that next step and punch a ticket to Providence.
Speaking of Rhode Island, Providence Hockey Club is having a solid first season in the EHL with a 13-11-1 record in the first half. They had a six-game winning streak in December including showcase wins over the Jr. Rangers and Seacoast Spartans. While the team does not score as much as the Railers or Apple Core, their lineup is spread even and anchored by good goaltending with Ayvin Eidsness and Nicholas Hansen. If the team continues to improve in 2024, they could make things harder for the top two teams.
Can the Bears conquer the South?
In its first season with a new identity, the New Jersey Bears sprinted out of the gate with a 19-2-1 start. Carson Frye and Tim Briley may be the best goaltending tandem in the league, and players like Corbin Schiebel, James Vermeesch and Oleg Egorov were getting it done offensively to the point where the Bears seemed unbeatable.
Then the Bears had a December to forget, slumping into the holiday break with a six-game losing streak. It is undeniable that the Bears will bounce back and be a favorite to win the South Division, but can they do it before other teams catch up? The gap between first and last place in the South is 14 points, the lowest gap in the league by far. With more intra-divisional play, it also means any team could get hot and rocket their way up the standings.
The New Jersey 87’s are only seven points out with two games in hand while the Pennsylvania Huntsmen, Team Maryland, Philadelphia Little Flyers and Philadelphia Hockey Club are all within striking distance. Each of those teams have had up-and-down moments in the first half, any one of them could potentially make a run for some of the top spots in the division.
Will the scoring title stay in the North?
Last season, the top six scorers in the EHL were all from the North Division. This year, the top four scorers are also up in the North. New Hampshire Avalanche forward David Basin currently leads the league with 45 points (17g, 28a), with seven points in four games since joining the Avalanche, and Seacoast Spartans forward Jonathan Groth is the only other player to record 40 or more points in the first half (15g, 26a). A.J. Lackas and Mathias Johansen of the New England Wolves are also up there with 38 and 37 points respectively.
Going beyond the individual stat-lines, the scoring race reflects the state of the North Division as the Avalanche leads the pack with an 18-6-2 record. The Wolves and Spartans both have 14 wins and only trail the Avs by a few points. The difference-maker for New Hampshire right now is strong defense and goaltending, so if the Spartans and Wolves can do a better job of keeping the puck out of their own net, they could challenge the Avs for first-place, or even a spot in the Frozen Finals.
As the games return to action, the next three months will be action-packed with playoff races, a league-wide showcase in early March and then the postseason. Be sure to catch the games on FloHockey, as the second half of the 23-24 season is officially underway.