Friday, October 06, 2006

Stars visit first-year Rangers this weekend

Even as the North American Hockey League’s officiating crackdown is packing ‘em into penalty boxes at a record clip, the Marquette Rangers will pay homage to ‘old-time hockey’ this weekend when the Traverse City North Stars visit for a two-game series.

That’s because Saturday’s game will feature an appearance by the Hanson Brothers, the bespectacled brethren who played for the Charlestown Chiefs in the cult hockey classic, “Slap Shot.”

On the ice, the teams are unlikely to ‘put on the foil,’ but the North Stars will have their hands full with Marquette goalie Stephen Ritter, one of the NAHL’s top goalies. Ritter, a behemoth of a netkeep at 6-3, 200-lbs., has worked the pipes in five of the first-year Rangers’ six outings, posting a 3-2-0 mark with an eye-bulging .946 save percentage and nearly as astounding 1.80 goals against average.

“They’re a solid team all around, but that guy has been outstanding in net for them,” assessed Stars head coach Scott Gardiner. “We’ll have to work hard to get anything past him.”

While Marquette boasts five NAHL vets, including Steve Sperry (Team USA-17 in 2005-06), the neophyte Rangers have been as hard-hit as any team by the officiating onslaught. Despite not having played a game in 12 days, the club has amassed the second-most penalty minutes in the league.

The Rangers’ offense is led by Saskatchewan export Brodie Zuk, who has a trio of goals and four assists. Nick Kosinski and hometown prep star Neeco Belanger have contributed six points each, while Nic Weight leads the club with four goals.

Marquette head coach Leigh Mendelson told the Traverse City Record-Eagle that his team would be facing a vet-laden, open-ice bunch in the North Stars.

“Their team has some veterans and returning players,” he said. “They have a good, skilled team with speed. That’s the kind of team you need to have in today’s hockey.”

While the North Stars are just a point out of first place in the NAHL North Division, it would be impossible for them to ascend to the divisional penthouse on Friday, as the two first place clubs – Alpena and Team USA – face off at Northern Lights Arena. The Rangers are in fourth place, right behind Traverse City with two games in hand. And as for a home ice advantage, the team set an NAHL record with 2,270 fans at its inaugural home opener against Alpena on Sept. 23.

“It should be an interesting series because they’re a new franchise but in a very hockey-savvy community,” Gardiner said. “They packed ‘em in pretty good up there at their opener, and with the Hanson Brothers thing, they’ll probably be going crazy in their building. We’ll have to match their intensity or we could get caught on our heels a bit.”

The North Stars return to Centre ICE arena next weekend for a two-game set against Mahoning Valley.

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