Thursday, February 09, 2006

North Stars home for stretch run

Centre ICE to host 11 of team’s final 14 games

The Traverse City North Stars have played their share of tough road trips throughout the team’s first season in the North American Hockey League, and now get to reap the benefits of back-loading the home portion of the schedule starting tonight at Centre ICE arena against the Mahoning Valley Phantoms. The Stars, coming off a grueling four-day swing through Texas, will play 11 of their next 14 contests at home, and the only remaining road games are in nearby Alpena.

“We’re here, pretty much for the rest of the regular season,” Traverse City head coach/GM Scott Gardiner said. “All of our big trips are out of the way and now we can settle into a routine and get some serious practice time in as we head toward the playoffs.”

The Stars (13-26-5) are currently in fourth place in the NAHL north Division, leading fifth-place Alpena by 13 points. The top four team in each division qualify for postseason play. Traverse City plays the Phantoms (25-14-4) four times, the first place Team USA U-17/18s once each, and the NAHL champion Texas Tornado in a two-game set at Centre ICE on Feb. 23-24. The remaining six outings pit the Stars and IceDiggers against each other in the chase for the final playoff berth.

“We need to pick off some of these points that are out there on the home schedule,” Gardiner explained. “We have to try to put some distance between us and Alpena.”

The distancing process can begin tonight at Centre ICE arena against the Phantoms, but the Mahoning Valley players will likely have revenge on their minds after the North Stars prevailed in the teams’ last meeting – a 4-3 shootout on Jan. 28. Traverse City will get back two front-line scorers in Joe Schweiger (shoulder) and Ryan Bond (concussion), but will be without defensemen Jarrett Rush (ankle) and Steven Oleksy (one-game suspension). Fellow blue-liner Arthur Bidwill could also miss action with a back problem.

“That Texas trip beat us up a little bit, but it will be good to get those scorers back,” Gardiner added.

For now, Gardiner and the Stars will settle into a weekly rhythm that should yield positive results in the postseason should the team hang onto its foothold on the No. 4 seed in the North.

“We’ll get to work on the things we haven’t been able to do a lot with lately,” Gardiner said. “We’ll continue to work on our own zone, but we’ll get to the powerplay and penalty kill, which have been dismal at times. Now that we’re home, there’s just more time to do all those things and make a run at the playoffs. Once we get there, anything can happen.”

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