Gabe Potyk of the Twin City Thunder fires a shot on goal during a game against the New Hampshire Monarchs in November 2020 in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The new kids on the block are looking to crash the party.

The Twin City Thunder, who are in their second season in the United States Premier Hockey League’s Tier II junior hockey league, the National Collegiate Development Conference, have reached the NCDC championship weekend in Pittston, Pennsylvania. The Thunder will take on the regular season champions, the Jersey Hitmen, in one semifinal Saturday at 5 p.m.

The winner will face the winner of the other semifinal between the Junior Bruins and Rockets Hockey Club on Sunday at 3 p.m.

“We are definitely excited; we are in very good company with programs that have established themselves over many years,” Thunder NCDC assistant coach Cam Robichaud said. “You look at the Hitmen, Bruins and the Rockets Hockey Club, those are household names at the junior hockey level and they have had great success with their programs. We are very excited to be on the same playing field as them.”

The Hitmen and Junior Bruins each have 10 Division-I commitments on theirs roster while Rockets HC has six players committed at the Division-I level. The Thunder had one player this season committed in defenseman Owen Paskowski, who last played for the Thunder on Jan. 23. Twin City has eight Division III commitments.

The Hitmen have won five league championships since 2008, while the Jr Bruins have three since 2005.

During the regular season, the Thunder faced the Hitmen twice — both times down at the Hub City event in Tampalosing 5-1 on Jan. 20 and Feb. 4, 4-3 in shootout.

“We really had a good game down in Florida against the Hitmen and we ended up earning a point, losing the contest in a shootout,” Robichaud said. “We are very excited about the fact, going down to (the game) this weekend, there’s no shootouts. …We want to settle the score playing five-on-five hockey. We know how we have to play them this weekend against them. They are an extremely skilled team and we have to respect that skill, but know how to handle that skill. That has been our focus. We need to go and need to play as a cohesive unit and firing on all cylinders with our structure and our systems. We need to play fast and physical.”

The Thunder reached the semifinals after taking the top seed in the three-team round robin with the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and Northern Cyclones. The Thunder then defeated the Cyclones in a two-game sweep last week.

In goal it has been Devon Bobak who has seen the majority of starts in the playoffs, going 3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .960 save percentage.

Leading the way for the Thunder in these playoffs has been forwards Gabe Poytk (five goals, assist), Valeri Rykov (two goals, three assists) and Colton Friesen (three goals, assist) and defenseman Joey Potter (four assists).

“It’s guys that we have expected to produce points have stepped up and they have been,” Robichaud said. “Gabe Potyk has been our leading goal-scorer for us all season long and he has continued his way in playoffs. He has five goals in the playoffs and he had a hat trick against the Cyclones. He’s been playing well and finding the net and he’s using his body to earn goals. It’s nice to see players use their strengths to achieve success.”

Connecticut Junior Rangers’ Liam Connors skates past Twin City Thunder forward Valeri Rykov in a game at the Advent Health Center Ice Rink in Wesley Chapel, Florida during the 2020-21 season. Josh Boyd/USPHL

Twin City can rely on the playoff experience of Rykov and Alex Rivet, who both were a part of the L/A Nordiques team in 2019 that was coached by Robichaud and went to the North American 3 Hockey League Fraser Cup Final, losing to the Texas Brahmas 2-1.

“I think they can attest more than anyone, it doesn’t matter if you go in as the first seed or the fourth seed, playoffs is a new season.” Robichaud said. “Everyone (has a blank slate) as far as their record. You have to show up and have a good day. You win one game and you are in the championship. They have seen that, both of them have played in a championship game at the junior level. Rivet has been at the high school level as well.”

Rivet joined the Thunder early in the season while Rykov, like when he joined the Nordiques, was a midseason addition to the Thunder in December.

Rivet said he hopes he can help the team entering a big game while he believes Robichaud will be a calming influence behind the bench.

“The biggest thing with Val and I being 2000s on the team, we are leaders as well,” Rivet said. “We don’t have the (captaincy), but we do see each other as leaders. (Robichaud) being there, he’s always preached not too high or too low. Playoffs, anything can happen, you can be down 1-0, letting up a goal the first 30 seconds into the game. If you give up, you are too low, you lose the game right after the puck drops. If something happens, bounce back from it. I feel like with Cam on the bench, he’s more a stress-reliever, he’s settling the boys down and getting us going in waves.”

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