The New Jersey 87’s won the Eastern Hockey League title with playoff efforts in March and April, twice overcoming postseason losses, but it was the way the team shook out of a slump in November that may have laid the groundwork for the successful end of the season.
Bouncing back from a single playoff loss was simple considering this was a team that went immediately from an eight-game losing streak to a 17-game point streak during the regular season.
“It definitely taught us how to face our lows and built our character; built us for the long haul,” playoff Most Valuable Player Jason Atkinson said of the October and November losing streak that included five one-goal losses.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the 87’s, still in their slide, trailed the Connecticut Chiefs, 2-0, in the second period.
Atkinson assisted one goal and scored another less than three minutes apart to tie the game before the second period ended.
Patrick Doyle’s power-play goal, on assists from Hugh McGuigan and team captain Matt Herrick, with 8:11 left ended the longest losing streak in the four-year franchise’s history and, though it was not known that night, began a winning streak.
“That game was really the turning point in the season for us,” 87’s coach Adam Houli said.
It was the first of 14 straight wins by a team that did not lose in regulation for two-and-a-half months. An overtime loss was followed by two more wins to complete the point streak.
Goalie Owen Hains said the 87’s never got down.
“Even though we lost some close games, no matter what, in the locker room, we were always smiling, having fun,” Hains said. “We showed up every day.”
With the losing streak over, the 87’s climbed to the top of the standings, going 30-12-4 to tie for first in the standings with the Philadelphia Little Flyers, the team they lost to in a playoff for the South Division title.
The 87’s dropped one more game during the round-robin portion of the EHL playoffs, but got right back on the winning track that took them to the EHL title one season after the organization produced the championship of the feeder EHL Premier League.
“We knew we could face a loss and bounce back from it,” Atkinson said.
Once in the final, the 87’s were outshot, 10-6, in the first period by the Walpole Express, but the teams remained in a scoreless tie more than five minutes into the second period.
Atkinson scored the game-winning goal, Everett Schneider connected 44 seconds later, and Houli’s 25 saves secured a 2-0 shutout victory.
“Once Everett scored, I had a pretty good feeling we were going to win it,” Atkinson said.
Houli helped create that feeling with his play throughout the season.
“The game was truly defining of who Owen was for us all year,” Houli said. “We knew we had a good goalie and in that final weekend, in playoffs, he just put it all together for us. He’s a goalie that can steal a game.”
Two power plays — one for each team — helped decide the title.
Atkinson broke the shutout 18 seconds into the second New Jersey power-play chance.
“It was a bit stressful,” Atkinson said. “We got the power-play opportunity and my linemate, Matt Anastasio, got a shot. A rebound popped out and I was able to wrap it around to score the first goal of the game.”
The 2-0 lead was in jeopardy when Walpole went on a five-minute power play after a major penalty 6:55 into the third period.
“I was just thinking to myself, stay calm and stick with the basics,” Hains said of playing with the two-goal lead. “I knew my team would have my back.
“During that five-minute penalty kill, I only saw one shot, which just goes to show how good my defense was in that game.”
In addition to being playoff MVP, Atkinson was joined on the all-tournament team by Hains, Herrick and Matt Zdanowicz.
Houli said Herrick, a defenseman who was often relied upon for 25-30 minutes per night, “epitomized what the 87’s were by being able to shut down top players and then also being able to drive the pace” on the other end while Zdanowicz had unmatched speed that allowed him to “take over a game at any given shift.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.