Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Team USA travels to Traverse City

Each year, the U.S. National Team Development Program harvests some of the top under-17 talent in the country. After a year of contests against North American Hockey League and international tournament action, most of the players graduate to the under-18 squad, from which the National Hockey League has stuffed its personnel coffers over the past few years.

This year’s Under-17 crop is every bit as talented as those that have seen almost 50 players plucked in recent NHL Drafts, and the team is presently situated in the fourth and final postseason slot in the NAHL North Division, five points ahead of Traverse City. The North Stars host the U-17s this weekend at Centre ICE arena for an important Friday-Saturday series.

“They are a supremely talented team,” said North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “If you give them a chance to make plays, they will hurt you. You can’t give them so much respect that you don’t maintain that aggressive approach, but you also can’t give them any freebies, because they’ll bury the puck in your net.”

Among the USNTDP’s top performers are a pair of NHL-reared players: Forward Ryan Bourque, son of all-time NHL great Ray Bourque, and Bjorn Krupp, whose father Uwe spent time with the Detroit Red Wings during a 20-year pro career. Bourque made an impression on Palumbo – and the net – during the teams’ first meeting back on Oct. 5.

“Ryan’s shot is just like his dad’s,” Palumbo explained. “When we played them down there, he shot one so hard - the puck had gone in, bounced off the back of the net, and landed out in the neutral zone before anyone could even react.”

Jeremy Morin leads the U-17s with 15 goals and 24 points in his 19 games, while Drew Shore (17 pts.) has dished out a team-best 11 assists. Bourque is third with nine goals and 16 points. The Under-17 squad downed TC by a 6-3 margin back on Oct. 5 in Ann Arbor in a game that Palumbo said hinged on poor puck control.

“We turned the puck over no less than 10 times and five of them resulted in goals,” he said following the game.

For Traverse City, the forward line of Nate Urbaniak, Harrison Niemann and Kyle Bonis is firing on all cylinders over the past few weekends. Urbaniak, who has scored a team-high 13 goals to go with 26 points in 23 games, has eight of those tallies in the past five contests. Niemann has 10 points over that span, while Bonis has a goal and four assists in his first four games with the North Stars. The team will also get back a pair of players who were nursing injuries of late in forward Kellen Michalak (lower body) and defenseman Ben Plocar (upper body).

“We have to try to control the puck and we have to always know where everybody is at – account for all five skaters at all time,” Palumbo assessed. “We can’t be sloppy for one minute, because we know what they can do when given the chance.”

The North Stars (9-9-5) and Team USA U-17s begin a stretch where the clubs will face off seven times between Friday and March 4. The USNTDP – whose 13-13-2 record includes games played against NAHL competition by both the U-17 and U-18 teams – has played five more games so far this season than Traverse City, while third-place Marquette and fifth-place Alpena has played two additional contests. Palumbo cautions against overvaluing games-in-hand.

“Right now, we’re playing .500 hockey and it’s not going to get us into the playoffs in this division, where no one is below .500,” he said. “We can’t count on having more games left than other teams we’re battling for playoff position. Those are games we have the opportunity to win, but there are no guaranteed points left out there.”

Friday’s contest will feature an intermission performance by Twin Bay Skating Club’s Northern Lights ‘High Ice Theatre.’ The decorated troupe will perform a number from the musical, “Hairspray.” Both Friday’s and Saturday’s showdowns will face-off at 7 p.m.

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