After a thrilling victory Saturday night, the Nashville Junior Predators are one step closer to fulfilling something not many expected in their first year as a team, winning the Silver Cup Championship. Nashville won the North American TierIII Hockey League (NA3HL) South Division with a 4-3 victory over the Texas Junior Brahmas, clinching the series 2-0. The game wasn’t without some drama though. After the Junior Predators went up 4-1 on a Trent Kulczyk goal with less than seven minutes left in regulation, Texas battled back with two goals late into the third to make it a thrilling finish. Allowing teams to get back into the game in the third period is not something Nashville is used to letting happen.
“We were just making a lot of mental mistakes and taking dumb penalties,” said Nashville captain Jacob Lainesse. “When we go to Chicago, we’re going to really have to tighten that up and really learn how to finish a game.”
Head coach Karlis Zirnis echoed his captain’s thoughts, but also credited the Junior Brahmas with battling back.
“I think was a little bit of both,” said Zirnis on his team making mental mistakes and Texas pouring it on. “They’re (Texas) a really good, resilient team. They beat Topeka and Topeka was the number two seed. They picked up some players from the NAHL towards the end of the year, so they’re a good club. At the same time, we just made some mental errors that we can just not afford to make next week. The teams will be way too good, and they’ll make you pay for it.”
As Zirnis stated after Friday night’s victory, the team is full of depth. Saturday night, seven different players registered points, including two goals each from Trent Kulczyk and Jon Severson.
“That’s the big thing about this team is that we have four good lines,” said Zirnis. “Any day, somebody else can step up. That’s why we’re successful. Our depth is really good.”
Even though the team was guaranteed a spot in the Silver Cup Championship Tournament taking place in Geneva, Illinois from March 19-22, winning their division meant receiving the highest seed in the six-team tournament. Just winning the South Division was a big accomplishment for the Junior Predators.
“We’re all really excited, especially as a first year team,” said Lainesse who registered two assists in Saturday’s victory.” We’re trying to make a big statement as a team to go to the Silver Cup and eventually win Nationals.”
With the Junior Predators dominating the league throughout the season, they will definitely be playing with a target on their backs. Teams will be gunning to take down number one. While they did finish the regular season with the best record, the goal right now is to take down the North Iowa Bulls, winners of back-to-back Silver Cups.
“We absolutely embrace it,” said Lainesse on having a target on their backs. “We want it because we have a good schedule coming up (in the tournament), so hopefully we can see the top team in the finals with this.”
If Nashville finished first or second at the Silver Cup, then they’ll move on to the USA Hockey Tier III National Championship in Simsbury, Connecticut the following week. Not only do they have the chance to be crowned the best out of the 31-team NA3HL, but the champion of all USA Hockey Tier III teams. Zirnis however, is focusing on the now.
“Right now we’re just going to enjoy this,” said Zirnis. “You don’t win the South Division every day, so enjoy this. Then, we just have to get back on the drawing board and look at who our opponents are, which we’ll know on Monday. We’ll just work and sharpen up. The third period was just not good enough. Focus on that, fix our mistakes, fix our game and then focus on the opponents.”
The Junior Predators are a young team when it comes to junior hockey experience, but having a captain in Jacob Lainesse will be helpful to the team for the stretch run of the tournament.
“I guess I know what it takes to win,” said Lainesse. “The team I was on last year went to the finals of the Silver Cup. It helps with being able to get across to the team that we just need to bear down and finish our chances because we’re not going to get as many while we’re out there.”
Practice for the upcoming week will be about preparing mentally and focusing on how to maintain leads. The competition will only continue to be tougher.
“Practice this week is going to be a grind,” said Lainesse. “I don’t know what he has planned for us, but he’s a great coach and he’ll have us ready.”
One thing that will be interesting to see in the tournament will be the use of goaltenders. Justin Ball played both games for the Junior Predators in round two. With Nathan Klebe recovering from illness, it is not yet known how the goaltenders will be rotated throughout the Silver Cup.
“We’ll see how Nathan (Klebe) is because he was sick this weekend,” said Zirnis. “He was supposed to get the start on Friday night and then Justin (Ball) Saturday, but he came into pre game skate and felt sick. We’re just evaluating his situation health wise and making sure he’s gaining his strength back. Then we’ll make a decision from there.”
The Silver Cup Championship Tournament, the six teams will play three games of in a round robin format. Teams are seeded based on regular season finish, so Nashville will have the number one overall seed. Here’s the Junior Predators schedule for the tournament:
- Thursday, March 19 – vs Metro at 2:00pm
- Friday, March 20 – vs Granite City at 4:00pm
- Saturday, March 21 – vs West Michigan at 4:00pm
The top two teams after round robin play will compete for the Silver Cup on March 22nd at 2:00pm.
Photos courtesy of NA3HL