Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lots on the line when 'Diggers visit Stars

Championships aren’t won in October, but any time is a good time to build momentum, according to Traverse City North Stars head coach Scott Gardiner.

Gardiner and co. will play host to Alpena this weekend at Centre ICE arena in as big a two-game series as the calendar will permit. The IceDiggers (8-3-0) own the top spot in the North American Hockey League’s North Division, one point up on the host North Stars (7-5-1). The clubs have split their 16-game historical series right down the middle, with each club claiming a triomphe de octet.

“It’s been just the kind of rivalry we hoped when we came into the league,” Gardiner said. “And this is the first time we’ve had something very real on the line, with first place basically up for grabs. Yeah, it’s early in the season, but it’s still a big one for both teams. It should be a great series.”

The teams split a September home-and-home series, with Alpena winning a 5-1 decision in the opener before TC bounced back for a 4-3 win the following night. Since then, the Diggers have rattled off three straight victories, while the North Stars have prevailed in three of five outings.

While the stalwart tandem of Nolan Craner (9G-15A) and Todd Rudasill (9G-14A) still sit first and second, respectively, atop the NAHL scoring chase, the IceDiggers’ special teams have gotten even stronger since last month’s meetings. Alpena leads the league with a 21.37 percent success rate on the power play – nearly three full percentage points better than the second-best club – and have registered an NAHL-best 25 extra-man markers. Craner, Rudasill, and Drew Pierson have 17 of those between them. In the two meetings this year, the Diggers are 6-for-25 (24 percent) when up a man.

“That’s where we really, really have to focus,” Gardiner added. “They are absolutely deadly on the power play. We can’t put ourselves in a situation where we’re playing a man or two down. We have to get good special teams and goaltending this weekend. Those are the keys.”

With a crucial four points on the table this weekend, Alpena head coach Kenny Miller told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that he’d take two … but can’t help but feel a little greedy, either.

“They're a good team and they've gotten some good goaltending recently,” Miller said. "We haven't won in their building this year. I'd be happy with a split, but it'd be nice to take two.”

Both the Friday and Saturday games face off at 7 p.m. at Centre ICE arena.

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