Thursday, March 22, 2007

IceDiggers back on track

After battling through a rough stretch the past few weeks, the Alpena IceDiggers reversed their fortunes last weekend with three convincing wins in which they outscored their opponents, 16-2.

“We’re starting to play good hockey again at the right time,” said IceDiggers coach-GM Kenny Miller, whose team was 2-8 in its last 10 games prior to last weekend. “We’ll need to play like we did last week in order to be successful the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.”

The IceDiggers opened with a 3-0 win over Marquette on Thursday night behind a perfect 27-save performance by goaltender Mike Jarboe. Marco Ruggeri scored the game’s first goal, with Todd Rudasill and Jimmy McCusker (pictured) notching the others.The next night, Drew Pierson’s two goals, including the game-winner, lifted Alpena to a 5-2 win over Traverse City. McCusker added another goal and an assist, while Jarboe turned aside 30 shots.

On Saturday, Jarboe took center stage again, stopping all 28 shots in the IceDiggers’ 8-0 victory over the North Stars. McCusker and Carl Nielsen each struck for two goals, with Justin King adding three assists.

“We started off strong on Thursday and that carried over into the rest of the weekend,” said Miller, whose team improved to 35-20-4. “We were really excited about playing our last home game (on Saturday in front of 1,043 fans) and it showed; we controlled play for the entire 60 minutes."

Jarboe was calling the shots for most of the weekend. Picked up back in September in a trade with St. Louis, the 18-year-old recorded his first two shutouts of the season at an important time of the year.

“Mike has been great as of late,” said Miller. “He’s in a groove right now and in order for us to be successful the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, our goaltending is going to have to play well and I’m confident it will.”

One of the youngest IceDiggers, 17-year-old McCusker is also blossoming into postseason form. Never short on effort, the Novi native has five goals and seven assists in his last 10 games, including his five-point performance last weekend.

“He’s one of our hardest workers and he’s starting to get rewarded,” said Miller. “I expect him to finish strong and carry his play into the playoffs.”

Pierson, an Army recruit, continues to play his hot hand offensively, as does Rudasill, the Ohio state-bound standout who trails St. Louis’ Pat Maroon by only 10 points in the NAHL scoring race with three games to play.

Versatile Ricardo Yesue has also earned high praise from his coach.

“He’s the ultimate team player who is willing to do whatever it takes in order for his team to win, whether it’s make a play offensively, kill off a penalty or stand in front (of the net) on the power play and takes whacks from defensemen,” said Miller.

King had his best weekend of the year in Miller’s eyes, providing an energetic spark through his hard work.

The always-improving Chad Billins continues to be the IceDiggers’ most consistent defensemen, according to Miller.

Eric Roman, who recently committed to Wayne State, has continued his solid play.

"Now that Eric has committed to college, you can tell he's more relaxed and just making plays all over the ice," said Miller.

His defensive partner, 6-foot-4, 215-pound Nielsen, has proved himself as one of the league’s toughest customers with talent to boot.

“He’s stepped up and is playing some really good hockey right now,” said Miller.

Alpena’s turnaround this season has been dramatic. After winning all of 13 games last season, the IceDiggers can come close to tripling that number this year (they have 35 wins with three games to play).

“Veteran leadership has played a big part,” said Miller of his team’s 180. “The guys work hard in practice and in the weight room and it’s paid off so far.“We were able to add some players through trades and also from Junior B and all those players have stepped in and been a big part of the team, along with the 14 guys that returned from last year. And our first-year players all came from high-quality teams and have been great additions to the success we are having as well. We have guys that have skill, but we also have guys that work very hard.

“In our four years in this league, this is the most talented team we’ve had, skill-wise, and it may also be the hardest-working team,” Miller added. “The guys get along very well off the ice; they spend lots of time together away from the rink.”

Of Alpena’s three remaining games, two are at North Division champion Mahoning Valley this weekend. The IceDiggers are 3-11 against the Phantoms this season and winless in Ohio.

“We’ll have to be at our best because we haven’t had success in that building all year,” said Miller. “I like the fact that we’re playing good hockey right now as we head there.“It’s no secret why they have the best record in the league,” he added. “They’re a really good club and they have tons of skill and they work hard. It will be a tough challenge, but I know the guys will be ready for it.”

Taken from weekly NAHL release

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