Ryan Wheeler leaned up against the glass by the staircase behind the Titans’ goal, looking out onto the rink where he spent the last two seasons of his junior hockey career. Still fully dressed a half-hour after the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights defeated New Jersey by a score of 5-2, it dawned on the 20-year-old defenseman that he had played his final game in a Titans’ uniform.
“It’s tough, being an older guy and aging out. Last time stepping in your home rink, just soaking it in and trying to say goodbye to all of the boys,” Wheeler said. “It’s definitely a tough pill to swallow but I’m proud of the guys, proud of the season we had considering we were an underdog, and proud of how everyone battled. You can’t expect more than that.”
The Titans had a 2-1 series lead against Wilkes-Barre but dropped the final two games, including a 5-2 loss in a decisive Game 5 at Middletown Sports Complex. Knights’ goaltender Christian Stoever made 49 saves out of 51 shots while five different Wilkes-Barre players recorded a goal.
Reed Robinson opened the scoring at 5:39 by intercepting a pass right in front of the Titans’ goal and beating Matt Ladd with a shot from point-blank range. Matt Kidney doubled the lead with 10 seconds remaining in the period by capitalizing on an odd-man rush.
Blake Kryska made it 3-0 with a power-play goal at 6:09 of the second period, but the Titans finally repsonded three minutes later when Ryan Naumovski notched his second of the postseason. He came down the right wing and made a centering pass that deflected off a Knights’ defenseman and past Stoever, reducing New Jersey’s deficit to 3-1.
Wade Novak made it a one-goal game when he scored 50 seconds into the third period, recording his team-leading third goal of the playoffs. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the Titans’ last goal of the game while the Knights managed to cushion its lead. Adrian Danchenko walked in on a breakaway and ripped a shot past Ladd’s blocker, off the post and in to give the Knights a 4-2 lead. Lincoln Hatten sealed the game with an empty-net goal and sent the Knights to the East Division final against the Philadelphia Rebels.
“The group was resilient and battled back, I don’t think you could question the heart or the care. We were just never able to fully dig out of the hole, and any time you fall behind 3-0, you’re facing an uphill battle,” said Titans head coach Craig Doremus.
The end of Game 5 proved to be emotional in more ways than one. Not only were the Titans eliminated from the playoffs, but it marked the end of several players’ junior hockey careers. Andrew Husted, Tyler Antonucci, Nick Boyagian and Ryan Wheeler are the players who joined Doremus as first-year Titans last season and have now aged out. Cam Kuhl, Wade Novak and Holden Biebel join the list of players who have also aged out.
In those two seasons, the Titans racked up 63 wins, seven playoff victories including last year’s first ever playoff series win in the Garden State, and nearly two dozen college commitments to various DI and DIII programs. Doremus spoke about the veterans who were an integral part of the team in both of his season here.
“They hold a special place in, obviously the organization’s heart having been two-year veterans, and for me, I’ve been really close with a lot of the guys who have been here for two years. They took a chance on me and the staff when they came here and gave us an opportunity to work with them and be a part of our organization,” he said. “I know a lot of these talented players have many options to choose from when it comes to junior hockey, and for them to put their flag in the dirt and take a chance on us as a staff, it’s a special place they hold in our heart and I care about those guys a lot.”
Wheeler, who served as an alternate captain this year, spoke about the differences between the 2016-17 campaign and this season.
“We went a little younger this year, whereas last year we had a lot of older guys,” he said. “Being one of those older guys this year, it was nice to see the younger players step in right away and make such an impact on our team.”
Some of those younger players include Ryan Naumovski and Matt Cameron, both of whom finished in the top five for the team in scoring this season, forwards Kyle Jeffers and Chris Garbe along with rookie defenseman Jimmy Dowd Jr. All of the aforementioned players with the exception of Jeffers have college commitments, although they could return to New Jersey for a second season.
For Doremus, this season felt like a step back after reaching the East Division final last year. He spoke about the team’s goals from the start of the season and took responsibility when the team was unable to achieve them.
“As an organization, you’re role is always to win the Robertson Cup, and we talked about it from day one at our camp; it was Robertson Cup or bust, so when it goes bust I don’t think you can sit here and say that it was a job well done. I take a lot of the blame myself, I need to do a better job as the leader of the organization and the results certainly aren’t acceptable by my standards,” Doremus said.
While results may not have shown in the standings, Doremus’ team seemed to encompass the NAHL’s motto as a team of opportunity. For the second year in a row, his team reached double-digits in terms of college commitments and will likely see that number continue to rise in the coming weeks.
Now with the offseason looming, Doremus added that the staff will learn from this season and for ways to improve in the 2018-19 season.
“Every little detail matters and your compete level and consistency are so important, so I think there’s a lot of things to be taken from that. As an organization you have to sit back and reflect, let emotions go and then make some judgements on how the season went wrong and what you can do better to address that from a player personnel standpoint, from a coaching staff standpoint. You have to be willing to accept some constructive criticism and hopefully improve and get better as you approach the following season.”
Meanwhile, right outside the Titans locker room, a still fully-dressed Wheeler expressed his confidence in the team moving forward. “I wish them nothing but the best,” he said. “The Titans are definitely going to come back stronger next year.”