Monday, March 27, 2006

North Stars beat Alpena in OT, USA next

If tightly-contested games are a good way to ready for the playoffs, the Traverse City North Stars got a crash course in preparation this weekend against the Alpena IceDiggers.

After the teams traded shootout victories on Friday and Saturday at Centre ICE arena (see below), the North Stars were able to claim victory before things got to the shootout session on Sunday at Northern Lights Arena, as Jared Mullen tipped home a Steven Oleksy shot from the top of the face-off circle at 3:19 of the overtime period to give Traverse City a 5-4 victory in the 2005-06 regular season finale.

The North Stars found themselves in a 2-0 hole just 1:46 into the game, and were at a 4-0 disadvantage after Steve Culbertson scored his second of the contest at 12:55 of the second period before clawing back into the game.

“For whatever reason we have struggled in Alpena’s building this year,” said Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner. “But we got down and had the heart to come back and make a game of it. We really started to play with some passion, and that’s how we had to do it all weekend. We were down 3-0 on Friday before we came back, and 4-0 today.”

Sal Ragusa started the comeback at 15:58 of the second, followed by unrequited third period lamplighters from Jonathan Juliano, Eric Elmblad and Jake Erway. Matt Larke and Mullen drew assists on Juliano’s goal at 4:45, Oleksy and Richie Zobak set up the game-tying goal from Erway at 10:50, while Elmblad’s effort was shorthanded and unassisted at the 9:01 mark.

“We had to fight for every inch of ice in all three games this weekend, and that can only help us as we go into our playoff series with the USA (Under-17) team,” Gardiner added. “I was very proud of the way we were able to respond when we got down. We started taking it to them, and playing the body, and things just went from there.”

Stars netkeeper Jeremy Kaleniecki won for the second straight day, stopping 50 of the 54 shots he faced, while Peter O’Hara was tagged with the loss for the IceDiggers.

The North Stars, who finished the regular season at 17-34-7, scored five of a possible six points in the final weekend of their inaugural season, and will head into Thursday’s playoff opener at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube on a high note. The best-of-five North Division semifinals come to Centre ICE arena for Games 3 and 4 of the series on April 7-8.



Same story, different result.

A night after the Alpena IceDiggers came into Centre ICE arena and skated away with a nail-biting 5-4 shootout victory over the Traverse City North Stars, the host Stars turned the tables on Saturday, claiming a 3-2 shootout triumph of their own in the home-ice regular season finale.

Matt Larke scored both regulation goals for the Stars, who travel to Alpena on Sunday for the regular season swan song. Larke, who now has 14 tallies in 2005-06, also recorded a shootout goal for Traverse City, along with Jon Madden and Travis Paeth. Paeth’s shootout marker proved to be the game-bagger.

“This basically proves that we’re a playoff team and we deserve it,” said Larke, a Royal Oak native. “We worked hard tonight, and we deserved it.”

Larke says that a fast start – and some timely advice – proved to be the difference between Saturday’s win, and the 5-4 loss on Friday that began with three early Alpena goals.

“Coach (Mike) Stapleton told me before the game: ‘Shoot the puck,’ and that’s what I did. It really inspired me. We all came out right off the bat, hitting and shooting the puck, and playing with a lot of intensity, and the results speak for themselves.”

Larke’s first goal (15:07) was the only score of the first period, as set up by Jonathan Juliano and Jared Mullen. Nolan Craner answered for the IceDiggers (13-38-6) just 3:25 into the second stanza, before Larke’s second goal of the affair – at the 15:11 mark – pushed the host Stars back in front again. Todd Rudasill – who was helped off the ice early in the first period after being dumped into the end boards – came back to score the game-tying tally a scant 25 seconds into the third period, setting up the scoreless overtime and shootout session.

Stars goalie Jeremy Kaleniecki permitted the second Alpena shooter – Steve Culbertson -- to score after stonewalling Justin Stadler in the visitors’ first turn, and rebuked all comers thereafter. Larke, Madden and Paeth did the rest.

“It just started off right, and ended up right,” Larke assessed. “It felt great to win a game like that heading into the playoffs.”

The Stars, now 16-34-7, will face the Team USA Under-17 squad in the North Division semifinals of the NAHL Robertson Cup Playoffs, beginning on March 30 in Ann Arbor. Home dates in the best-of-five slate are scheduled for April 7-8 at Centre ICE arena. Sunday’s regular season lid-lifter faces off at 3 p.m. at Northern Lights Arena.



In a game without much postseason significance attached to it, the Traverse City North Stars played like a high-end playoff team for 30 minutes, and like a team that was looking forward to spring tee times for the first 10 minutes of Friday’s contest.

In the end, the Alpena IceDiggers emerged with a 5-4 shootout victory in front of 900 Centre ICE faithful, but took a circuitous route to the win. The Diggers, who will sit out the playoffs, came out the chute on Friday with three goals in the first 9:15 of the opening stanza, including Drew Pierson’s ice-breaker just 54 seconds in. Todd Rudasill and Alpena native Erik Peterson completed the early triumvirate before the postseason-bound Stars were able to right the ship.

Traverse City Central product Jake Erway gave the hosts some life heading into the first intermission on an even-strength goal with 2:22 on the clock. Richie Zobak and Brett Englebright assisted.

“I don’t think we were ready for them to come out and play the way they did,” Stars winger Jonathan Juliano assessed. “Without anything but pride to play for, I thought they’d be out there for the rough stuff – to just fight -- but they came out and scored goals, and it took us a while … to respond.”

The second period was all North Stars, as Juliano (2:37), Zobak (13:35) and Sal Ragusa (17:00) put TC in front, 4-3, in a session that was as one-sided on the ice as on the scoreboard. Juliano and Ragusa’s markers came with the man advantage. Matt Larke and Steven Oleksy assisted on Juliano’s goal, Erway and Englebright drew helpers on the Zobak tally, and Arthur Bidwill and Patrick Nagorsen set up Ragusa.

Peterson’s second goal of the game was the only score of the third period, as the Diggers knotted the contest at four-all just 1:28 in, setting up the scoreless overtime session and eventual shootout. In the shootout, Justin Stadler started things off for Alpena with the first marker, and Todd Rudasill also found twine for the visitors. None of the Stars were able to solve IceDiggers netkeep Johnny Morrow in the shootout.

“You just can’t come out and play the first 10 minutes like the game doesn’t mean anything,” lamented Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner. “We really raised our level of play in the second and third, but it’s like we’ve been saying to the players all year: You play 60 minutes – not 20 and not 40. That’s the only way we’re going to win hockey games.”

Stars goalie Ryan Donovan, who surrendered the first three goals and gave way to Jeremy Kaleniecki for the final 6:40 of the first period, was stellar after his return to the pipes in the second period, stopping 35 of the next 36 shots he faced. In all, Alpena foisted 51 shots on net to 39 for Traverse City.

“That’s way too many shots to give up,” Gardiner added. “We have to keep that number down, and that’s going to be our primary focus (Saturday) night. We’ll give Jeremy the work tomorrow night, because we need to confident goaltenders going into the postseason.”

The Stars and Diggers face off again on Saturday at Centre ICE arena in a 7:30 p.m. contest, before heading to Alpena for Sunday’s regular season finale. Traverse City will face the Team USA Under-17 squad in the NAHL North Division semifinals, which start March 30 in Ann Arbor, and come to Traverse City for home dates on April 7-8.

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