Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Traverse City-Team USA playoff preview

There’ll be a lot on the line when the Traverse City North Stars meet the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad in the opening round of the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup Playoffs.

Initially, it’s the Stars first-ever foray into the postseason in their inaugural season starting Thursday in Ann Arbor, but if things play out a certain way in the other North Division semifinal, the Stars and Team USA could be playing for a trip to the national finals.

Since the Mahoning Valley Phantoms are the host of the 2006 Robertson Cup championship, they get an automatic berth in the five-team finals, and so would the North Division runner-up. If Mahoning Valley is able to get past Cleveland in the first round, the winner of the Stars-USA series would still face the Phantoms in the best-of-seven North Division finals, but would also land an automatic berth in the Cup finals.

“We have some business to take care of before we can even really start to think that way, but it has been discussed,” explained North Stars coach/GM Scott Gardiner. “Will we be rooting for Mahoning Valley against Cleveland? Of course we are. It’d be silly not to. That should be one heck of a series, but we have a pretty big series of our own to worry about.”

The Stars visit the Ann Arbor Ice Cube for Games 1 and 2 on Thursday and Friday before the series shifts to Traverse City. Games 3 and 4 are scheduled for April 7-8 at Centre ICE arena, and should a decisive fifth game become necessary, it would be played at the Ice Cube on April 9.

Team USA’s Under-17 squad scored a come-from-behind 4-3 victory in the teams’ last meeting on February 26 at Centre ICE, but the teams split their six regular-season meetings. Only one of those meetings was decided by less than a goal: Traverse City’s 4-2 win in Ann Arbor on Jan. 12 in which Travis Paeth dropped in an empty-netter in the waning seconds.

“You look at our series with Traverse City, and they were all very close, very tight games without exception,” said Team USA U-17 head coach Ron Rolston. “I expect this will be a terrific series, right down to the wire. Scotty and Mike (Stapleton) do a great job of coaching up there, and they’ll have their guys ready to go. This one could go the distance.”

Team USA, which enters its Under-17 squad into the NAHL Robertson Cup playoffs, will be without three of its top guns, as Ryan Hayes, Cade Fairchild, and Colin Wilson were moved to the Under-18 team for the upcoming U-18 World Championships in Sweden. Hayes was the team’s leading scorer with 30 goals and 18 assists in 49 games, while Wilson was third with 37 points. Fairchild appeared in 54 games for the U-17s and posted 10 goals and 16 assists.

“We try to make the (U-18) team the best we can for the Worlds, and try to give all our guys the opportunity to play,” Rolston explained. “Those are three very good players, but the guys we have are ready to go. It gives the other guys a chance to step in and contribute even more.”

John Albert leads the current incarnation of the U-17 squad in point production with 16 goals and 30 helpers in 55 outings, while James vanRiemsdyk is tops among U-17 goal-scorers with 25. Patrick Nagorsen leads Traverse City with 42 points on 17 goals and 25 assists, while Paeth has registered a Stars-best 21 tallies.

“We’re going to go after them by doing the same things we’ve talked about all year,” Gardiner said. “And that’s tightening up in our own zone, opening it up in the offensive zone like we have been the past month or so, and 60 minutes of effort.”

The North Stars are coming off a weekend series with rival Alpena in which they collected five of a possible six points, and each game was a nail-biter. The IceDiggers stole the first game of the set with a 4-3 shootout triumph before TC came back for a 3-2 shootout win on Saturday and a 5-4 overtime victory on Sunday after trailing 4-0.

Gardiner says those kinds of games can make the difference between being ready for the rigors of the postseason, and losing out on a shot at going to the nationals.

“No question, that series with Alpena was big for us in terms of preparation,” he said. “Now, we have to take care of our end of the bargain, and who knows what pot of gold awaits at the end of the rainbow.”

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