Thursday, January 17, 2008

Traverse City draws NAHL's best at Showcase

Despite the fact that his team will be facing the defending North American Hockey League champion and runners-up from last year twice each at this weekend’s Phantoms Showcase in suburban Youngstown, Traverse City North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo knows exactly what he’s looking for.

“Eight points,” he said. “With four games in four days, it’s going to test our depth and I’m confident in our depth. We have to be able to get offensive contributions from some guys who aren’t among our usual goal-producers.”

The North Stars take on the reigning Robertson Cup champion St. Louis Bandits on Friday and Sunday, with games against the host Mahoning Valley Phantoms on Saturday and Monday.

“Probably the two best teams in the league,” Palumbo asserted. “But we know we can skate with anyone.”

St. Louis has the NAHL’s top record at 28-6-1 and a full 13 points ahead of second place Alpena in the North Division standings. The Bandits have scored a league-high 158 goals over 35 contests and their 2.54 goals-against average is third-lowest in the NAHL. Ben Warda leads St. Louis with 47 points – including 34 assists – while Kyle O’Kane has 25 goals, which is tied for second among the league’s skaters. Ben Miller, who came to the Bandits in a trade from Texas, has 16 goals and assists on 12 more in his 21 games since the deal.

The duo of Mike Johnson (13-2-1) and Cal Heeter (14-4-0) backstop St. Louis and both are among the NAHL’s top 10 netkeeps in terms of save percentage and goals against average.

“They’re just about as solid a team all the way around as you’re going to see,” Palumbo said. “They have quite a group, and they’re playing very well together.”

The North Stars surprised the Bandits last season at Centre ICE arena, opening the season’s final homestand with a 4-1 trouncing of the eventual champs on March 23. Joe Greener scored the first and last goal in that affair.

The host Phantoms have slipped from challenging St. Louis for the division penthouse to third place in the hotly-contested North, but only because Mahoning Valley has played just two games since Dec. 22. Schoolcraft native Derek Graham leads the Phantoms with 25 goals and 27 assists, leading a balanced offense.

“The division is packed with talent, so it really doesn’t matter which we’re playing,” Palumbo added. “We’re chasing these teams in the standings, but we feel like we’re playing our best hockey right now. If you look at the season, we’ve lost 10 of the 14 one-goal games we’ve been in and seven of those we lost in overtime or the shootout. If we had gotten a bounce in just half of those games…”

The Stars head to Marquette on Jan. 24 before coming back to Centre ICE arena on Jan. 25-26 when the Team USA Under-17s visit.

“It’s a stretch of our season where we have seven games in nine nights,” Palumbo said. “We’re going to need everybody ready to chip in.”

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