Thursday, March 16, 2006

North Stars ready for Team USA Under-18s

Even as his team is focused on facing the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-18 squad on Friday at Centre ICE, Traverse City North Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner admits that he’ll be scoreboard-watching this weekend.

With four games left on the regular season schedule, the Stars need four points to secure the fourth and final playoff berth in the North American Hockey League’s North Division. In the alternative, if the fifth-place Alpena IceDiggers emerge from a two-game weekend series at Mahoning Valley without a point, then Traverse City clinches the postseason spot.

Should the Team USA-18s knock off Traverse City on Friday, and Alpena splits with the Phantoms this weekend, then the season-ending three-game series with Alpena on March 24-26 becomes all-important. Gardiner says he’d rather go into the playoffs as the aggressor, and will have his team ready to take the fight to the U-18s.

“Every game is important, every game right now can mean the difference between making the playoffs and staying home,” Gardiner explained. “And it’s still the same thing I’ve been saying all along: We control our own destiny. We don’t want to have to have it come down to next weekend against Alpena, but if it does, we can do it that way, too.”

Alpena will be facing a Mahoning Valley team that will be without superstar center Anthony Ciraulo (Clinton Township) and head coach Bob Mainhardt, who were suspended for separate in-game incidents last week. The North Stars, however, will be facing a Team USA U-18 squad that boasts a roster chock-full of talent, including behemoth defenseman Erik Johnson – a 6-4, 225-pound defenseman who is expected to be among the first players selected in this year’s National Hockey League draft. Johnson, who is committed to the University of Minnesota for next year, has 11 goals and 22 assists in 38 games from the blue line this season.

“He’s a mutant,” said North Stars forward Jake Erway. “I mean, they’re all big and they’re all going to Division 1 colleges, and quite a few will be drafted (in the NHL), and they’re all the most skilled players in the country at that age, but Johnson is just … unreal.”

The U-18s are beatable, as proven last weekend when Springfield handed them their first NAHL loss of the season, 2-1.

“It’s a pretty lofty goal, but they can be beaten,” Erway added. “We’ll take a run at ‘em.”

Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day special at Centre ICE will also feature a visit from the Traverse City Central High School hockey team. The Trojans, the newly-crowned Div. 2 state champions, will be introduced during the first intermission.

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