Thursday, September 28, 2006

North Stars, IceDiggers renew rivalry

The rivalry is renewed.

With Friday’s season series lid-lifter in Alpena, the regional hockey enmity between the Traverse City North Stars and IceDiggers kicks off again as the two clubs battle for regional supremacy at Northern Lights Arena before returning to Centre ICE on Saturday for the back end of the home-and-home set.

The IceDiggers, a North American Hockey League-worst 13-38-7 a year ago, have turned their fortunes around in the early going of 2006-07. Alpena is alone in second place in the NAHL North Division at 4-2-0, and coming off a two-game sweep of NAHL newbie Marquette last weekend.

“They’re a good, solid team, but I thought that even last year when their record didn’t show it,” said North Stars coach Scott Gardiner. “They have 1 guys back, and some awesome new goaltending. They’re a very balanced team and we’re going to have to be at our best to play with them.”

The IceDiggers, led by head coach/GM Kenny Miller, boast the NAHL’s top two scorers through two weeks of action, with Nolan Craner leading the charge with four goals and seven assists. Another holdover from 2005-06, Todd Rudasill, is second in the league with five goals and assists on five others. Six of their combined nine goals have come when Alpena has held a man advantage.

“We’re going to have to try to keep those guys in check,” Gardiner added. “Especially when they’re on the power play, because they’ve already shown that they can hurt you.”

Traverse City will be without forward Aaron Pietila, who scored two goals and drew assists on two others during last Saturday’s 5-1 rout of the Team USA-17s. He took a slapshot to the groin during the contest, and underwent a medical procedure earlier this week. He is expected to miss 2-3 weeks.

“Pitsy did it all for us, and we’re going to miss him out there,” Gardiner said. “It’s up to everybody else to help pick up the slack, and I think we have guys who are willing to do that.”

For the North Stars, a couple of players with extra lettering on their sweaters also pace the club in scoring, as captain Patrick Nagorsen and associate captain Jameson Raymond lead the club with six points each. Nagorsen has three goals and as many helpers, while Raymond has a goal and five assists. Four players – Pietila, Jared Mullen, Richie Zobak, and Jonathan Juliano – have five points each, with Mullen tops in goals overall with four.

“It’s going to come down to execution, just as it has been for us so far,” said Gardiner, whose team is second in the league on the penalty kill and fourth on the power play. “In our own zone, in their zone and in the neutral zone – we have to continue to try to be consistent in our execution.”

The teams face off at 7 on Friday in Alpena, and at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday at Centre ICE arena.

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