After a heartbreaking loss to the Jersey Hitmen in the 2016 USPHL Dineen Cup Championship Series, Islanders Hockey Club head coach Sean Tremblay had a tremendous task in front of him: recruit almost an entirely new team for the upcoming season and prepare that group to win the championship.
“We were ranked number one all season last year, and we just didn’t get it done in the championship game. We only returned Austin Goldstein up front and three defensemen,” recalled Tremblay. “When you think about the fact that we turned over all that depth and we came back with just as much depth if not more, it’s a real credit to this team and my staff for recruiting good players and not just talented players, but really good human beings.”
The Islanders got off to a slow start, finishing September with a 4-3 record. That said, when the calendar turned to October, the team caught fire, going 9-1 and losing only in their final game of the month. As the team gelled, the returning players pressed the need to repeat as the Founders Cup Champions and win the Dineen Cup.
“Coming back this year, our main goal was winning the Dineen Cup,” stated Austin Goldstein. “We were all motivated by what happened last year and we knew what we needed to get there.”
The team received stellar goaltending from its duo of Justin Ferguson, who won the Elite Division Goaltender of the Year award last season, and Connor Minch, who played in the Premier Division last season. Together, they led the Islanders on a winning streak that lasted from November 20 until the final game of the regular season.
“Minch and I really pushed each other,” noted Ferguson. “It made both of us better. When I was hot, he was always supportive of me and I was for him when he was doing well. We became great friends, both inside and out of the locker room.”
Much of the result is from Tremblay’s unique approach to building the team, as no player was designated as the captain. While this differs from almost every other team, it is difficult to argue with the results, as many of Tremblay’s players serve as captains of their college squads.
“We want 23 to 25 leaders, we want everybody to lead in their own way, which is why we don’t put a ‘C’ on anybody,” said Tremblay. “Everybody, at some point takes over that leadership role at some point and it allows our guys to have more success when they leave the program.”
According to Ferguson, this tactic made for a truly special group of players.
“Everyone has a voice, everyone has a chance to step up, and everyone did. Guys supported everyone else, everyone stayed positive, it was a close-knit family,” he noted.
That family held together for the playoffs, and the Islanders found themselves back in the Dineen Cup Championship Series after winning series against the PAL Jr. Islanders and Springfield Pics. Their opponents would be one of their arch-rivals, the Junior Bruins, a team they swept in the regular season. Despite the earlier results, the Islanders knew better than to overlook their opponents.
“We knew what they had on the power play, penalty kill, and the forecheck. Coach went into it in depth and we played his system and it worked out,” said Ferguson.
The Islanders knocked off the Bruins in two games, but the series proved trying for the victors, as the Bruins refused to go down easy.
“It was a grind for sixty minutes both days,” stated Goldstein. “We were never really secure or comfortable with our lead, and I think we got outplayed in the last minute both games.”
“I give our guys a lot of credit because teams can be like, ‘God, can we do it again?’ Obviously, they could because of their belief system in each other,” said Tremblay. “We said that before the game, the biggest advantage we had was each other. ‘Together forever’ has been our motto since we got in the playoffs.”
Unlike last season, the Islanders finished on top and took home the ultimate prize. Also unlike last season, a sizeable group of returning players will highlight the roster. With veteran leadership in place, along with the memories of the work that needs to be done to win the Dineen Cup, the returning players look forward to the task.
“We’ll use this as motivation. It’s a great feeling, there’s nothing like it,” stated Ferguson. “I want to repeat and have this feeling again.”