Robertson Cup Playoffs Preview: Janesville Jets (2) vs. Springfield Jr. Blues (3)

Apr 13, 2018

By Mason Lyttle (@MasonLyttle) | Apr 13, 2018 | 2:00pm

With the Jets’ Road to the Robertson Cup beginning today, provides a look in at the start of each series of a hopeful run.

What fans can expect is a general introduction to the two teams, coupled with vital statistics and keys to the series. In our player-specific sections, we will highlight Players to Watch that do not serve as the usual suspects – the best of the supporting cast or perhaps the darkhorse playoff warrior.

First for the Jets are their longest division rivals, the Springfield Jr. Blues.

It was hardly a “rebuild” season for Janesville.

In other junior hockey markets, a wholesale change to the coaching staff, coupled with the rostering of the youngest group of players in franchise history, would probably spell what hockey management likes to call a “growth” year.

While this club has certainly seen tremendous growth this season, both in individual players and as a group, that development never came at the sacrifice of success.

The third-best finish in franchise history wasn’t enough to claim the division title this season, but when Trevor Stewart and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs string together a 45-win season, a full eight points clear of the NAHL’s next-best record, a solid 2nd place finish for the Jets is still a remarkable accomplishment.

New head coach and general manager Gary Shuchuk, along with assistants Corey Leivermann and Matt Campbell, didn’t miss a beat this season. This franchise saw a 38-win, 11-commitment season from its brand new regime, and holds home-ice advantage in the Midwest Division Semifinals as a result.

230 miles south, Tyler Rennette and his group took the proverbial step forward this season, rebounding from last year’s disappointing 5th place finish with a 13-point improvement, and won their last eight games to close the regular season with a bang. The Jr. Blues, powered this season by the NAHL’s best power play and two standout goaltenders, are ready for Janesville.

Six years ago Sunday, the Jr. Blues, then led by former Jets bench boss Joe Dibble, eked out a Game 5 victory over Janesville in a tight-checking, 1-0 goaltender duel at the Janesville Ice Arena. The teams combined for only 39 shots, and it was Chris Sitler’s at the 1:01 mark of the 3rd period that beat Jets goaltender Tony Kujava. The franchise, then in its third season, would have to wait three more years for its first playoff series win, and while a Robertson Cup has eluded the Jets so far, playoff success is becoming custom in Janesville.

The second postseason edition of the Jets’ oldest rivalry begins tonight.


Game 1 | Friday, April 13 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CST
Game 2 | Saturday, April 14 | Janesville Ice Arena | 7:00 p.m. CST
Game 3 | Friday, April 20 | Nelson Center | 7:05 p.m. CST
*Game 4 | Saturday, April 21 | Nelson Center | 6:05 p.m. CST
*Game 5 | Monday, April 23 | Janesville Ice Arena | 6:00 p.m. CST
*if necessary

Season Series (Jets 8-2-1-1)

Sat 9/16 | Jets 5 @ Jr. Blues 3
Fri 11/10 | Jr. Blues 3 @ Jets 1
Sat 11/11 | Jr. Blues 4 @ Jets 5
Sat 12/9 | Jr. Blues 4 @ Jets 1
Fri 1/5 | Jets 2 @ Jr. Blues 0
Sat 1/6 | Jets 3 @ Jr. Blues 2
Fri 1/12 | Jr. Blues 1 @ Jets 2
Sat 1/13 | Jr. Blues 4 @ Jets 5 (OT)
Sat 1/27 | Jets 3 @ Jr. Blues 0
Fri 3/2 | Jets 0 @ Jr. Blues 1 (OT)
Sat 3/3 | Jets 6 @ Jr. Blues 3
Wed 3/28 | Jr. Blues 2 @ Jets 1 (SO)

Janesville Jets vs. Springfield Jr. Blues
38-13-6-3 (85 points) Record 33-21-5-1 (72 points)
Fifth NAHL Standing Ninth
Second Division Standing Third
19-6-1-2 Home Record 15-10-2-1
16-6-5-1 Road Record 15-10-3-0
181 (9th) Goals For 169 (12th)
140 (5th) Goals Against 166 (9th)
21.5% (8th) Power Play 28.1% (2nd)
78.5% (14th) Penalty Kill 68.8% (23rd)
Eliminated in RC Semi-Finals 2016-17 Playoffs Did not qualify
Jakov Novak (32-41—73) Leading Scorer Ethan Stewart (17-30—47)
Kip Hoffmann (24-36—60) Second Leading Scorer Nikita Kozyrev (15-27—42)
TJ Polglaze (15-28—43) Third Leading Scorer Max Brainin (17-23—40)
Jakov Novak (32) Top Goal Scorer Ethan Stewart; Max Brainin (17)
Carter Ekberg (5-25—30) Top Scoring Defenseman Jordan Muzzillo (6-22—28)
Garrett Nieto (21-5-2-2, 1.94, .929, 2 SO) Top Goaltender Evan Fear (19-11-3-0, 2.39, .929, 2 SO)

Key to the Series – Janesville Jets 

Generate the depth scoring: The Jets’ high-octane top six forwards can score with the best of the North American Hockey League. As much as teams and coaching staffs like to say they don’t pay attention to the opposition’s statlines, rest assured that numbers like Jakov Novak’s and Kip Hoffmann’s are circled in red. With Novak, Hoffmann, TJ Polglaze, Brenden MacLaren and Sam Renlund, Janesville rolls five D-I committed attackers in the top two lines, and can draw from its excellent forward depth to round out the wings, whether with the 6’6″ Erik Palmqvist, veteran Matt Hanewall, or the skilled and quickly-developing Benji Eckerle. If Fear is on, as he often is versus Janesville, the Jets need to throw everything at him from all four lines. This is where carrying young skill like Ian Malcolmson, Jordan Steinmetz, and Logan Ommen gives the Jets multiple lines to throw at its opposition. Depth scoring could make this a short series in Janesville’s favor.

Key to the Series – Springfield Jr. Blues

Instill Fear: The 6’2″ netminder from Winnetka, Illinois, played 12 games in Springfield last season before advancing to the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints. While his stretch at the United States’ top rung of junior hockey wasn’t the best, Fear has taken a huge step forward in his game this season, boasting a .929 save percentage across 35 appearances. Against the Jets this season, the 18-year-old holds a 4-4-1-0 record with a .935 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average. In his last four starts versus Janesville, Fear stopped 42/45 (Jan 27 loss in Springfield), 30/30 (Mar 2 overtime win in Springfield), and 37/38 (Mar 28 shootout win in Janesville). If Evan Fear is on his game, Springfield stands a chance.

Forward to Watch – Janesville Jets

Jakov Novak (32-41—73): He’s the Jets’ MVP for a reason, and could soon be named the same title for the entire NAHL. The 6’3″ forward is a college coach’s dream. Novak uses his size, strength, skating, skill, and shot to gain every advantage possible over defenders. He seamlessly transitioned to center this season and has mastered the 200-foot game. Calm, cool, and collected, Novak will lead his Jets offensively in the playoffs, just as he has all season.

Forward to Watch – Springfield Jr. Blues

Ethan Stewart (17-30—47): Stewart is the Jr. Blues’ top scorer with a chip on his shoulder this series. The Rockford, Illinois, native was cut from the Jets early this season, and will undoubtedly carry no bigger desire than to eliminate his former team from the playoffs. Stewart, who scored three goals at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament for Team Midwest, has scored at least a point in five of his last six games against the Jets.

Defenseman to Watch – Janesville Jets

Alec Semandel (4-13—17): The Waunakee defenseman has been steady for the Jets all season, playing +17 hockey across 58 games, and it finally paid off for him this week as he announced his commitment to play WCHA hockey for Lake Superior State University. Playing in 15 more games this season than last, Semandel still cut his penalty minutes nearly in half, from 69 to 36. The late-season addition of future Badger Luke LaMaster gives the Jets even more depth at the blue line, and veterans like Semandel are expected to lead the way.

Defenseman to Watch – Springfield Jr. Blues

D Chase Mickelson (4-16—20): A 103-game NAHL veteran, Mickelson’s 6’4″ 220-pound frame gives him great reach and leverage to use against the Jets’ combination of size and skill up front. The Rice Lake native puts plenty of pucks on net, and knows goaltender Daniel Lebedeff well from their days playing for the Madison Capitols 18U program.

Goaltender to Watch – Janesville Jets

Garrett Nieto (31 GP, 21-5-0-2, 2.00 GAA, .929 SV%, 3 SO): Stewart’s revenge angle is there for Janesville’s goaltender, too, who was cut from the Jr. Blues at the beginning of last season. The Californian netminder committed this week to Union, and now with his Division I deal in place, can narrow his sights even more on beating the club who gave up on him last year. In seven games versus Springfield this season, Nieto has posted above-average numbers with a 1.98 GAA and a .935 save percentage. In four of his last five versus the Jr. Blues, he has held their attack to two goals or fewer.

Goaltender to Watch – Springfield Jr. Blues

G Evan Fear (35 GP, 19-11-3-0, 2.39 GAA, .929 SV%, 2 SO): The Jr. Blues have more than a serviceable backup in Slovakian Juraj Ovecka (.924 save percentage and has won three of his last four appearances), but Fear is their guy. The program advanced Evan’s brother, defenseman Erich, to the University of Denver two years ago, where he won a National Championship, and now is Evan’s great opportunity to showcase his abilities to Division I schools. Down the stretch, the Jr. Blues knew they would draw either Fairbanks or Janesville in the first round, and either club is full of goalie-testing offensive firepower. The stage is set for an epic chapter in this historic Midwest Division rivalry.