Thursday, March 02, 2006

North Stars host Phantoms Friday, Saturday

As the host club of this year’s Robertson Cup tournament, the Mahoning Valley Phantoms get an automatic berth into the North American Hockey League’s version of the Big Dance, but that doesn’t mean the Phantoms are taking it easy down the stretch of the regular season.

On the contrary, says Mahoning Valley assistant coach and Director of Player Development Ian Fredericks, who will help lead his Phantoms into Centre ICE arena this weekend for a Friday-Saturday series with the Traverse City North Stars. The Phantoms sit in second place in the NAHL’s North Division at 29-16-4, just four points behind the U.S. National Team Development Program in the race for the division crown.

“That’s our aim, there’s no doubt about it,” said Fredericks, whose team has won nine of the 10 games against the North Stars this season. “USA has four games in hand, but after this weekend, we get to play pretty much against USA and (third-place) Cleveland the rest of the way. That should make for a pretty exciting stretch run, because we sure don’t want to back into the nationals. We want to earn our way there.”

Boasting what Traverse City head coach/GM Scott Gardiner calls “perhaps the best line in the league” -- Anthony Ciraulo (pictured), from Clinton Township, former Soo Indians' forward Drew Satterley (Kentwood), and Marc Menzione – the Phantoms come into Centre ICE having won six of their last nine outings since the Stars posted a 4-3 shootout win over the Valley on Jan. 28 in TC. With Gardiner’s team trying to hold off Alpena for the fourth and final playoff berth in the North Division, the weekend has added significance for both clubs.

“We know we have to play a 60-minute game against them,” Gardiner said. “We have to play well in all three zones, because that’s what they do. They have a nice mix of size and speed and skill, and we’re going to have to do the same.”

The Stars are coming off a near-sweep of last weekend, knocking off the two-time defending champion Texas by a 7-4 count on Friday before falling in a shootout on Saturday to the Tornado. TC led 2-1 with nine seconds left in regulation before Texas knotted the contest and took it to the shootout session. On Sunday, TC held a 3-1 lead halfway through the third period before dropping a 4-3 decision to the Team USA U-17 squad.

“We played well, and if we get that kind of effort that we saw from our guys last weekend, we’ll be able to play with anybody, and that’s kind of what we took away from last weekend.”

Fredericks says his team can’t afford a letdown against the Stars, given Traverse City’s style of play.

“We can’t go into Traverse City and think that they’ve only taken one (game) from us this year,” Fredericks said. “We know they’ll continue to battle us all game, and that sort of works against them in a way. When you get up on a team like Alpena, they just fold up shop, but not TC. They force you to play them hard for a full 60 minutes because they won’t go away, they won’t stop working.”

Ciraulo and Menzione lead the Phantoms with 66 points each, which ties them for fourth among all NAHL skaters. Menzione has 25 goals and 41 assists on the year, while Ciraulo has chipped in with 21 goals and 45 assists. Satterley is right there with a team-high 26 goals and assists on 25 others.

“They’re as good as any players we’ve faced,” Gardiner said. “You have to know they’re going to be doing things on the offensive end of the ice.”

Forwards Patrick Nagorsen and Travis Paeth lead the charge for Traverse City. Both are becoming offensive forces less than a year removed from high school hockey. Nagorsen, an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep product, has registered 16 goals and 22 assists for a team-high 38 points. Former Muskegon Mona Shores star Paeth has lit the lamp 20 times, including three on Friday vs. Texas, and has drawn 13 assists as well.

The Stars three-game weekend ends on the road Sunday in a matinee against the IceDiggers. A win at Northern Lights Arena would almost cement the fourth and final postseason berth for Traverse City.

: Mahoning Valley Phantoms (29-16-4, 62 pts.; 2nd place in NAHL North Division) at Traverse City North Stars (15-30-6, 36 pts.; 4th place in NAHL North Division)
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Centre ICE arena
TICKETS: (231) 941-9200

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