Sunday, March 19, 2006

North Stars clinch playoff berth

There will be playoff hockey at Centre ICE arena this April.

The Traverse City North Stars officially clinched the fourth and final postseason berth in the North American Hockey League’s North Division on Saturday. Alpena’s 5-2 loss at Mahoning Valley mathematically eliminated the IceDiggers from contention, but North Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner doesn’t think of it as backing into the postseason fray.

“Nope, we earned our way in,” Gardiner insisted. “I look at that weekend against Texas, where we got three points when no one thought we’d get any. How big are those three points right now? Pretty big. That’s what put us in the position we’re in right now.”

The Stars are locked into the fourth slot in the North Division, meaning they’ll face whichever club emerges as the regular season division champs in a best-of-five series. Traverse City is scheduled for home dates on Friday, April 7 (Game 3) and Saturday, April 8 (Game 4, if nec.). Playoff tickets will be available on Friday at the North Stars ticket office in Centre ICE arena.

The U.S. National Team Development Program – which enters its Under-17 team in the NAHL playoffs – presently holds the top spot in the North with 75 points. Cleveland is just a point back after a two-game sweep of the U-17s this weekend, with Mahoning Valley also within striking distance at 72 points. Team USA closes out the regular season with a pair of games at Mahoning Valley.

“Obviously, making the playoffs is the first goal you set each year,” Gardiner added. “So, it’s good to get that in the bag. And it really doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve had our problems against Mahoning Valley this year, but we’ve had some success against the under-17 team, and some early success against Cleveland.”

Traverse City still has three regular season games left against Alpena, with Friday and Saturday’s games set for Centre ICE arena, and Sunday’s regular season finale across the state at Northern Lights Arena.

“You can’t sleepwalk through the last weekend and flip a switch and turn it on for the playoffs,” Gardiner cautioned. “We’ll be working on some … strategies, and we expect effort in all three periods of all three games. Alpena will be playing for pride, and they’re playing well right now.”

The North Stars will be as healthy as they’ve been in a while for the season-ending series with the Diggers. Defenseman and captain Steven Oleksy (shoulder) is expected to play Friday, and forward Ryan Bond (knee) saw his first action in over a month last Friday. Defenseman Ryan Reid, however, has been ruled out for the rest of the year with a back injury.

Gardiner says that once a team makes the playoff field, anything can happen.

“You see it every year – teams rise up and there are upsets. I’ve been telling the guys all year: It’s not about being the best team in December and January – it’s about being the best team in April.”

Photo by John L. Russell/Great Lakes Images

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