Thursday, April 06, 2006

‘Whiteout,' Under-17's on Stars’ radar

Spring has sprung – for the moment – across northwestern Michigan, but with a certain degree of fan cooperation on Friday, there’ll be a ‘whiteout’ at Centre ICE arena when the Traverse City North Stars and U.S. National Team Development Program’s U-17 squad face-off in the third installment of their best-of-five NAHL North Division semifinal series.

North Stars fans have been asked to wear white to Friday’s contest, in the playoff hockey tradition made popular by the Winnipeg Jets’ faithful and continued by the Phoenix Coyotes when the franchise moved there in 1996.

“It was fantastic,” recalled North Stars associate coach Mike Stapleton, who played for the Jets in 1995-96 and the Coyotes for three subsequent seasons. “To look up there (in the stands) and see all the white like that, it was a pretty cool thing. It only helps when the fans take an active role like that. The players can just sense that kind of atmosphere.”

Fan solidarity aside, the Stars should sense plenty of playoff atmosphere on the ice Friday, when Traverse City and Team USA-17 vie for the pivotal third game after splitting the first two clashes last weekend. The North Stars stole home ice with a 2-1 win in the opener before the under-17s stormed back on Friday for a 4-2 reprisal.

“They really wanted that game and you could see it,” said Traverse City coach-GM Scott Gardiner of Game 2. “That’s the best I’ve seen them play this year, and we weren’t able to match their … intensity.”

Either team could advance to the North Division finals on Saturday at Centre ICE depending on Friday’s outcome, but if the issue is not decided at that time, the teams would return to Ann Arbor for a decisive fifth game on Sunday.

“It’s a big weekend, no question,” surmised Stars defenseman Steven Oleksy. “It’s good to have these big games in our own building with our fans. They’ve been there for us all year.”

The point of emphasis throughout much of the week for Gardiner, Stapleton and the Stars, has been the transition game. While the Traverse City offense generated just 15 shots on net in last Friday’s 4-2 loss, the puck rarely crossed neutral ice without intervention from the USA-17 players.

“We need to get the puck out of our own zone more efficiently,” Gardiner admitted. “They were really able to bottle us up on Friday. We have a pretty simple plan for getting the puck up ice, so it will come down to executing that plan.”

Friday’s 4-2 loss also represents just the second time in eight meetings this season that the Stars and U-17s have been separated by more than a single goal.

“There have been some great battles this year,” said Under-17 squad head coach Ron Rolston. “For whatever reason, we just seem to match up with one another pretty evenly.”

Forward Jonathan Juliano is tied for second in the NAHL in playoff goals so far with three, while Matt Larke and defenseman Arthur Bidwill have two assists each. Five U-17 players have scored goals through two games, led by Brennan Vargas, who has a goal and a pair of assists.

Traverse City forward Joe St. John will be a game-day decision, as the Gaylord native suffered a concussion in last Friday’s contest and is still being evaluated.

Oleksy, who finished the 2005-06 regular season tied for 10th among NAHL defenseman with 30 points, says he expects a good showing on the ice – and in the grandstand – Friday night.

“I’ve played hockey a long time, but if we can look over and see all that white up there, that would be about the coolest thing ever.”

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