NORTH ANDOVER, MA -- The Islanders Hockey Club picked an interesting time to have what was probably its worst game of the 2017-18 season.
The Islanders fell in Game 2 of the Dineen Cup finals by a 6-1 score, forcing a winner-take-all Game 3 in the championship tournament of the National Collegiate Development Conference.
Easter Sunday, April 1, marked the comeback for the ages – the Islanders Hockey Club won the Dineen Cup over the New Jersey Hitmen. They did so with authority, winning by the same score as Saturday’s game, 6-1.
Combined with their 4-2 win in Game 1 on March 30, that put the Dineen Cup right back into the Islanders Hockey Club’s hands.
Head coach Sean Tremblay was not only thrilled to win the Dineen Cup for the second straight season, but with how his players rebounded from the gut punch of a day earlier.
“On Saturday, our defense didn’t play D, giving up odd-man rushes we’re not used to, and that was combined with our goalie [Dartmouth commit] Justin Ferguson not having his best game,” said Tremblay. “Credit to the Hitmen, their goalie Kristofer Carlson was outstanding.”
Ferguson, who was also in net for the Islanders’ 2017 Dineen Cup victory, was pulled from Game 2 and took the defeat out on his unfortunate goalie stick. If you want the definition to the word, “refocus,” Justin Ferguson nailed it both that day and in Game 3 Sunday, making 27 saves on 28 shots for the win.
“Ferguson is the best goalie I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something,” said Tremblay. “On Saturday, I said ‘Let’s get him out of there, let him get his anger out.’ He broke his stick in the hallway. After the game, I said ‘You’re going tomorrow.’ He said ‘I know. I know.’ He had to have that time to mourn, and prepare.”
“Goalie is a huge mental position,” said Ferguson. “You have to have a great mentality, and it’s something I’ve worked on through my years with Sean and with my goalie coach. You have to reset the mind and reset everything, really.”
Tremblay said he didn’t really need to be upset with the team after Game 2.
“They were upset with themselves, because of some of the decisions made with and without the puck. We had a couple stupid penalties when we didn’t need them,” he said. “[Carlson] also played ridiculously well, stopping 37 of 38 shots. I told them, ‘I really feel like the only team that can beat you is you.’”
Tremblay called in his team two hours before faceoff on Sunday for a meeting. The Islanders Hockey Club players were calm, focused and just ready to do business – Saturday was shut away in the memory banks, and they would not let that distract them from the task at hand.
“We had a nice team meeting and put together seven keys to the game that it would take to capture the title,” said Tremblay. “The players bought into that, and had the handout in their stalls and kept reading it over and over again. I told them, ‘Keep your head up. There’s no way we want to go 52-5 and have a disappointing year.’ We need to be 53-4 and what a difference that would make.”
“He was spot on with all his keys to the game,” added Ferguson. “What he said was ‘Think of this as a Game 7.’”
By the end of the first period of Game 3, it was clear whose house this was. The Islanders had goals from Jeremie Lavallee, Matt Dillon and Nick Parody. Just to illustrate their depth, there were five different players who had assists on those three goals.
“We were deep all around this year. When either Louis-Felix St-Jean or I went into net, there was confidence in us,” said Ferguson. “We, in turn, had confidence in every member of the ‘D’ corps and every line.”
“Justin was a big difference [to success in Game 3], and the D did their job – defend, distribute – and they couldn’t have done it any better,” Tremblay said. “We had to make sure to put the puck in the net, and the first goal [by Lavallee] was right where we said we could expose this kid.”
Towards the end of the second period, at the 17:42 mark, Collin Heinold scored for the Hitmen and the score remained close at 3-1 following 40 minutes of play. If there was any change of momentum from that, the Islanders didn’t get the memo – that doesn’t mean they weren’t feeling the pressure.
“People say this team has never embraced adversity, and when you look at our record, there doesn’t look like there was adversity. But you don’t get to that record without mounting pressure all the time, and being diligent day in and day out, every day for off-ice workouts and practices,” said Tremblay. “They were just complete professionals, and I’m very proud of them.”
Mark Gallant scored 15 seconds into the third period. Lucas Michaud added two more for a three-point night for himself and the final two goals of the 6-1 victory.
“It feels good. It’s no less of a feeling than winning it last year,” said Ferguson. “Both years, those guys were my family and my brothers.”
“I had always talked about my 2007 team as my best ever, but I told them after yesterday’s game ‘You are now the best team I’ve ever coached,’” Tremblay added. “No one I know has ever won that many and lost that few. It just adds to the culture that we have here.”
Outside of the coaching staff, those who knew the most about the culture were the veterans who had taken home the Cup in 2017.
This group included Ferguson, third-year defenseman Liam Darcy and fellow two-year defensemen Jack Moran and J.J. Layton, third-year forward Lucas Michaud and fellow returning forwards Justin Pearson, Sam Nestor and Mark Cheremeta.
“Without question, the leadership of those returning veterans set the tone that they would repeat,” said Tremblay. “With the type of high speed and skill set this team possessed, our practices are extremely tough. We don’t stop for hours on end. The new players were like ‘Do we go this hard every day?’ The veterans would respond ‘Even harder, and when you [new guys] pick it up, that’s when we take off.’”
Some of this new talent ended up being among the points leaders for the season. Lavallee closed with 52 points in 47 games, and newcomer Brent Hill was close behind at 46 points in 48 games after joining from Ontario’s Carleton Place Canadians.
“I had big time guys coming in – Lavallee, Hill, Hayden Taylor, George Sennott,” said Tremblay. “Those guys added so much firepower up front. And then you add the young guns trio of Mark Gallant, Jonathan Young, and Hunter McCoy [all 2000's] who by the start of our second half looked and played like true veterans.”
Matt Dillon, Oskari Halme, Nick Parody and Justin Marler were all two-way threats on defense, and they helped the D combine with the offense for an insane 254 goals scored in the regular season.
As junior hockey goes, though, some of these players are moving on as their junior eligibility runs out. Ferguson is, of course, headed north to Hanover, N.H., to take the net with the Big Green.
“He is going on to the next step in what I think will be a long journey for him,” said Tremblay. “He has every opportunity to get the starting position as a freshman. My former goalie Colton Phinney, who just finished four years at Princeton and is now with Winnipeg’s AHL team, practiced with us this year and said ‘How is [Ferguson] still here? He’s better than I am.’”
Pearson, a ’98, will move on in the fall to Yale University. Some younger players have Division 1 futures set as well – Gallant is committed to Colgate for 2019, and Young will join Merrimack in 2019.
The Islanders Hockey Club also have players advancing to the NCAA Division 3 game – Justin Marler is set for Hamilton College and Tyler Levine will move on to Wesleyan.
Tremblay figures that between six and seven other members of the championship team will announce their commitments in the next couple weeks, as they are still mulling D-3 offers.
Even with these departures, the Islanders Hockey Club is already shaping up to be a tough draw again in 2018-19.
"We will have a great core retuning next season to help us contend for a three-peat. We'll have Moran [a University of Maine commit for 2019] and Parody on our blue line, and up front start off with Cheremeta, Gallant, Lavallee, Young, McCoy, and Hayden Taylor,” Tremblay added. “It will be very difficult to fill the shoes of Ferguson and St-Jean, but we will find someone for sure who can come in and get the job done in net.
That's just what being a member of the IHC is all about - getting the job done.