The closing sprint is on to February 25, the start date for the Eastern Hockey League playoffs. The three Philadelphia teams were back in action over the weekend and play resumes in earnest Wednesday night with 105 league games remaining to determine the 16 tournament qualifiers.
The South Division race is all but settled while the North has evolved into a two-team struggle between two old rivals. Meanwhile, the Central and Boston Divisions are up for grabs with four teams still very much in the hunt for the division title.
A single point separates first-place Northern Cyclones (20-4-2-1; 43) and the second-place New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (20-5-0-2; 42), sparring partners in last year’s memorable championship series won by the Cyclones.
The Monarchs have won two of the three regular-season matches to date and the teams are back at it on Sunday (Tri-Town, 12:20 p.m.), the first of three remaining games between the two, including a home-and-home Jan. 24-25. It would be tough to find two teams more evenly matched — the Cyclones have outscored their opponents 102-57 (+45) while the Monarchs hold a 100-56 edge (+44).
With only 12 points separating the top four teams, it seems likely this race won’t be sorted out until the final weekend of regular-season action. For now, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights (22-7-2-0; 46) hold a slight lead built on strong two-way play (+42) but this is an equal-opportunity race.
To wit, the numbers put up by both the second-place Connecticut Oilers (20-9-1-1; 42 and +43) and the third-place Hartford Jr. Wolfpack (19-10-0-2; 40 and +40) are essentially identical to those of the Knights. Even the fourth-place New York Bobcats (16-11-1-1, 34 and +19) are positioned to make a move.
OK, if there’s one prediction we feel comfortable making at this early juncture it’s that the Philadelphia Little Flyers (26-3-1-1; 54) will win the division. PLF is also well on the way to locking up the top seed in the playoffs with an eight-point bulge on its closest pursuer. The Flyers lead the league in both goals scored (141) and fewest goals allowed (50), yielding a gaudy +91 differential.
The task at hand for the second-place Philadelphia Junior Flyers (15-10-1-1; 32) will be to play its way into the Top Eight for the first-round of the playoffs, ensuring home ice. Since only three teams don’t qualify for tourney play, the New Jersey Titans, New Jersey Rockets and Philadelphia Revolution remain very much in contention for the final post-season spots.
Parity rules in this division as well. A mere 10 points separate the top four squads with the Walpole Express (18-8-3-0; 39) holding a modest five-point lead. The Express are the division’s most proficient offensive team, averaging 3.3 goals per game to go along with a +14 differential.
The second-place Boston Bandits (14-11-2-4; 34 and +3) own a four-point edge on the third-place East Coast Wizards (14-14-1-1; 30), who have put together a strong debut campaign despite a -20 differential. The fourth-place Boston Junior Rangers (13-15-1-2; 29) are by no means out of it.
The league’s fourth and final in-season Showcase Series event, the Martin Luther King Day Showcase, will be held January 17-19 at Rodman Arena in Walpole, MA. Admission is $10 (day pass) and $25 (weekend pass). Twenty-seven games will be played, kicked off by Jr. Monarchs vs. Jr. Wolfpack at 10 a.m. on the Rodman NHL ice on January 17.
Ken Tencza, Cyclones, F (Elmira, 2015)
L.J. Fellows, Cyclones, D (Utica, 2015)
Dennis Maier, Cyclones, D (Middlebury, 2015)
Sebastian Foster, Ct. Oilers, F (Bowdoin, 2015)
Michael Bears, Boston Jr. Rangers, F (Southern New Hampshire, 2015)
Goals — Pontus Okerblad, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (27)
Assists — John Nugent, Philadelphia Little Flyers (32)
Points — Jon Ruiz, Philadelphia Jr. Flyers (43)
Goaltending — Simon Leiva, New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (1.26 gaa)