The New Jersey Titans rode a strong late-season surge to within a game of representing the East Division in the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup last spring.
The Titans are getting an earlier start on that pursuit this season, jumping into the division lead behind a high-powered offense featuring early NAHL scoring leader Mitch Machlitt and the most recent East Division Player of the Week, Kyle Jeffers.
“We returned a lot of players from last year,” Titans coach Craig Doremus said. “I think there was a sense of unfinished business in the group.”
Doremus said Machlitt was at the forefront of such thinking.
“Being one game away and with a lot of guys returning from last year, we all have a chip on our shoulder this season,” said Machlitt, a 20-year-old U.S. Military Academy commit from Maple Grove, Minnesota. “I think with the veteran leadership in the room, we know a fast start doesn’t mean success in April and May.”
The Titans have the league’s highest-scoring team so far, but Machlitt said the players understand championship pursuits require equal importance being placed on all three zones.
The offensive production has come from both familiarity and new combinations.
Machlitt spent some time playing with Michael Outzen and Jeffers after joining the Titans during the 2018-19 season in a trade with the Corpus Christi IceRays. They started the season together and found success, but Doremus also got the boost he was looking for when he moved Jeffers off of a wing to center another line.
The Titans have won three straight to improve to 8-2. Jeffers earned his Player of the Week award in the last two wins, with two goals and two assists in a 7-2 victory, then another goal in a 4-3 shootout win during a sweep of the Northeast Generals.
Jeffers, a 20-year-old American International College commit, was born in Florida, but has come up through the Titans program since his youth days. He has six goals and nine assists and is tied for second in the league in points.
Doremus said the switch to center was designed in part to get Jeffers’ feet moving and increase his output.
“The numbers we’re putting up with our forward group right now are really good and it creates difficulties when teams try to match up against us,” Doremus said. “We have depth in scoring. It’s not just one or two players or, even at this point, one or two lines.
“We’re getting production throughout.”
Machlitt leads that production. His 12 goals and 16 points are both NAHL-high figures.
Chemistry gained last season is part of the early success this season, according to Machlitt. The Titans finished third in the East in the regular season, which they closed with four wins in the final five games.
After dropping their first two in the playoffs, the Titans put together five wins in six games to win one series and move within one win of joining the other division playoff winners to decide the Robertson Cup. With his scheduled arrival at West Point next fall, Machlitt is looking to add to his game and keep the Titans climbing.
“Overall, I’m working hard to be more consistent with my game this year, both offensively and defensively,” he said. “Good play in the D-zone will lead to more time with the puck and therefore more goals for our team.
“Poise with the puck and making quick decisions is the key to getting playing time as a freshman, so I have really focused on that this year as well.”
The team as a whole has shown poise, winning both its shootouts, going 3-1 overall in one-goal games and 5-1 in games decided by two goals or less.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet,” Doremus said. “I think the biggest thing for us is that we’ve been resilient. A lot of the games we’ve won, we’ve trailed in. I think the team has a little of a refuse-to-lose attitude and we’ve been able to fight through some adversity and come back in some of those games.
“It’s a credit to those guys. As a coach, I’d like to play with the lead a little more, but nevertheless, a win is a win and our guys have done a good job.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.