A New Season
Rebels Open Playoffs This Weekend Vs. New Jersey
With all 60 games of the North American Hockey League regular season in the books, now is the time for playoff hockey to return to Northwest Arena.
The Jamestown Rebels capped off their inaugural season with a 3-1 win over the Johnstown Tomahawks on Saturday night, finishing the weekend with a 1-1 record against the East-Division leaders after a 3-2 loss on Friday.
In his first regular season in Jamestown, head coach Joe Coombs has led his team to a second-place finish with 78 points and a 35-17-5-3 record. That resume has earned the No. 2 Rebels a first-round playoff matchup with No. 3 New Jersey (31-26-3), which finished the season with 65 points.
The best-of-five series will begin with a pair of home games this weekend at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evening, before the Rebels take to the road for two more contests in New Jersey. Should a Game 5 be necessary, the series will return to Jamestown with the winner facing either No. 1 Johnstown or No. 4 Northeast in Round 2.
“They are a very capable team,” Coombs said of the Titans after the regular-season finale. “We have played them recently, we know them well. We have played them a lot so we’ll have everything designed for the week, start with our defensive stuff early in the week and work our way into basically a small walk-through on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning. We will be as prepared as we possibly can.”
During the first stretch of a 12-game series against New Jersey, Jamestown did not get off to the strong start it would have liked. The Titans claimed the first two games of the year, 3-2 and 6-3 on Oct. 12 and 13. Their lead grew to three games after a 2-1 win on Dec. 1 before the Rebels claimed their first victory, a 4-0 decision on the road.
With the exception of one more loss, a 5-4 final on Jan. 18, Jamestown has had New Jersey’s number, ripping off seven consecutive wins over the Titans down the stretch.
While the Rebels picked up confident 5-1 and 6-1 wins over head coach Scott Langer’s team at Northwest Arena in early March, both of the final two wins this year came in the form of one-goal differentials on the road at Middletown Ice World Arena.
“They like to cheat the game a lot, so we just have to play the game the right way and we’ll have no problem taking care of them,” said Jamestown captain Alex Frye, referencing New Jersey’s tendency to look for breakaways. “Right now we are good, we’re coming off some injuries here so when we get these guys back, when we get (Ryan) Keane back, he is great for us on the back end. Whenever they come back it’s going to be good.
“A couple of the guys haven’t been in playoffs before and I can tell they are all getting excited. This is a group of guys that can really take it as far as we can go and win a Robertson Cup this year.”
Against the Titans, Jamestown will be looking to limit the offensive chances on long breakaway lead passes. When the Rebels have run in to trouble against New Jersey this season, it has often been because of 1-0 chances against their goaltender.
‘The minute their defensemen pick the puck up they blow the zone and if your (defensemen) are not aware then one pass can beat all five of your (players),” said Coombs. “The one night a while back I think we gave up three breakaways. That is what happens if your gap isn’t good, if you’re not up the ice and you’re not not reading 85 feet, they’ll take off on you. We turn the puck over in the offensive corner and, boom, they’ve got a breakaway because our (defensemen) are sleeping on the line. That is probably one of the most important things for us is making sure we are aware at all times as to what is going on around us.”
Individual strategy aside, one of the keys for Coombs has been getting his players to limit their unforced errors. When the Rebels have played their best, most consistent hockey this season, it has come during stretches when they have been able to control the tempo of games.
“At the end of the day, is it a new season (this week)? Yeah, but I also know through my experience that (improvement) is not just going to happen and they have to come to work. I wish I had the answer, but it is on them,” said Coombs.
Like all teams at this stage of the season, the Rebels have been nursing some injuries on their way to the playoffs, notable among them being Keane. The Rebels’ top goaltender is currently second in the NAHL in goals against, averaging 1.81 per game and trailing only Mattias Sholl of Fairbanks.
Holding a record of 23-10-1-1 on the year and boasting a .927 save percentage, Jamestown will hope to have Keane available once more starting this weekend.
“(New Jersey) has good goaltending, we need to have good goaltending. Ryan Keane has to get healthy. We’re just going to prepare them to the very best we can and come Friday night, hopefully, have some intensity to our game. I would like to see us play with more intensity, certainly urgency, to start with and then intensity. I think we can be dangerous.”
Brandon Perrone leads the Titans between the pipes, sitting at an even 16-16-2 on the year while letting in 3.18 goals per game.
In addition to being named team captain, Frye also leads the Rebels in scoring after a 30-goal, 56-point season.
Defenseman James Crossman is second behind Frye with 37 points, while Jake Felker is second in goals with 18 on the year.
New Jersey has relied mostly on its forwards for offensive production this year, especially the duo of Ryan Naumovski and Kyle Jeffers. Naumovski leads the Titans with 59 points on 16 goals, while Jeffers and Gavin Gulash have led the scoring with 25 and 26 goals respectively. The Rebels have made their bones limiting offensive opportunities this season, giving up just 131 goals in the regular season, first in the East Division and second league-wide in that category behind only Aberdeen (124).