The Tampa Bay Juniors Elite team return to Nationals for the third time in four years. TBJ advanced all the way to the National Championship in their last national appearance in 2018-19. They start their journey this Thursday at Chilled Ponds in Chesapeake, Virginia, home of the Hampton Roads Whalers. The Juniors are pooled in Group A with the Jersey Hitmen, Northern Cyclones, and Richmond Generals. They will play all three teams in a round-robin format, with the top two teams in the group advancing to the national semifinals.
Group B consists of the Charleston Colonials, Charlotte Rush, Islanders Hockey Club, and Rockets Hockey Club. The winner of Group A will face the second place team of Group B in the semifinals and vice versa.
TBJ clinched their spot in Virginia with a sweep of the Atlanta Mad Hatters in the Florida Division Playoffs. Tampa scored 11 goals in the two games with Tim Ruf scoring a hat-trick in the series clinching game.
Scouting the Hitmen
The Jersey Hitmen finished second in the Mid Atlantic Division with a 15-12-2 record. They were 13 points behind the division-winning Rockets Hockey Club. The Hitmen prevailed in a winner-take-all game three against the Jersey Shore Whalers to punch their ticket to Nationals. Jersey scored 15 goals over the three-game series while only allowing 6. The Hitmen came back after losing game one, including an 8-1 win in the series deciding game. They were led all season by the strong play of leading-scorer Trevor Carmen (36 points) and leading goal-scorer Angelo DePinto (19 goals). In net, the Hitmen get strong goalie play from second-year netminder Salvatore Benevenuto (5-4-1, 2.60, .918). The Juniors defeated the Hitmen 4-2 in their lone meeting of the year on January 11th. Tampa got 23 saves from Ethan Leigh and goals from Nash Cobbs, Tim Ruf, Jake Duhaime, and James Jorge in the win.
Scouting the Cyclones
The Northern Cyclones finished third in the North Division with a 24-4-0 record. The Cyclones 28 games played was second least in the league and fewest in the division. They played 13 less games than the division-winning Islanders Hockey Club. Due to state restrictions, Northern went over two months without playing a game from November 3rd to January 7th. They thrived in Hub City Tampa, winning 18 of their 20 games. Three of the 18 wins came against the Tampa Bay Juniors. The Cyclones have proven to be one of the most dangerous teams in the league when they are afforded the luxury of playing consistently. Northern is propelled by a well-balanced offense with seven players having 20+ points and five averaging over a point per game. Cainan Stevenson leads the way with 21 goals and 14 assists. Connor Vittands held down the fort with a 2.05 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.
Scouting the Generals
The Richmond Generals were second in the high-powered Southeast division with a record of 34-7-3. They finished three points behind the Charlotte Rush, the other Southeast team at Nationals. The Generals defeated the Tampa Bay Juniors in the 2019 National Championship. The Gens were pushed the distance in the Southeast playoffs but defeated the Carolina Jr Hurricanes in three games. Richmond lost the first game 4-2 before picking up wins of 3-2 and 5-1. Leading scorer Ryan Kotz finished the year with 41 points in 41 games. The Generals were one of the strongest defensive teams in the league. They benefitted all year from strong play by their goaltending tandem of Hogan Nelson and Jadon Lee. Nelson finished the regular season 10-1-1, with a 1.74 goals against, and .929 save percentage. Lee was no slouch with a 13-4-2 clip, a 2.16 goals against, and a .916 save percentage. Richmond defeated Tampa 4-3 in overtime in their only thrilling matchup of the season.
Weekend Schedule @ Chilled Ponds
Game 1: Thursday, March 18th
6:40 pm vs Jersey Hitmen
Game 2: Friday, March 19th
1:30 pm @ Northern CycloneS
Game 3: Saturday, March 20th
8:00 am @ Richmond Generals