Friday, February 22, 2008

North Stars welcome Alpena tonight

The time is now for the Traverse City North Stars.

With three-quarters of the 2007-08 season in the books, the Stars will have to continue their roll if they hope to catch Marquette for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NAHL North Division. Traverse City is currently eight points back with 13 games left – including four head-to-head meetings with the Rangers.

The stretch run gets underway on Friday evening, when the Alpena IceDiggers visit Centre ICE arena for the first in a home-and-home series that returns to Northern Lights Arena on Saturday.

“We’ve kind of stopped watching the standings and worrying about what other teams are doing,” Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “We’re tried to look at the next game, the next period, the next shift. Honestly, I don’t know who plays who, how many games are left against which teams, and all that stuff. I think you lose focus when you go that route.”

The last time the Stars and Diggers met (Feb. 1-2), Traverse City converted a home-and-home sweep that helped spawn a 4-1-3 record over its last eight games. The North Stars are coming off a victory at Mahoning Valley – the franchise’s first – and took three of four points against the Phantoms.

“I think we’ve come to a point where the guys understand what the coaches expect and we as a coaching staff have grown to understand our team better,” Palumbo explained. “The pieces seem to be fitting, and we’re getting contributions from a lot of guys.”

Few North Stars players are as switched on right now as center Nate Urbaniak. The Perrysburg, Ohio product set a new team single-season record for points (51) with a quarter of the season remaining. He has nine points over his past five games, including a two-goal, two-assist effort in a 4-2 win at Mahoning last Saturday. Urbaniak leads TC with 21 goals – tied for most in a season in the Stars’ three-year history – and 15 power play assists. He also had a goal on Monday at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament all-star event.

“Nate is doing all the little things right,” Palumbo explained. “He’s responsible defensively, creative offensively, and has a really nice chemistry with Harrison (Niemann) and Kyle (Bonis).”

Erik Peterson is the Diggers’ biggest offensive threat overall, with 63 points – fourth among all NAHL skaters - including 23 assists on the power play. Jon Puskar (18 goals), Russell Anderson (17), Jimmy McCusker (16) and Isaac Viau (15) are also credible threats with the puck for Alpena. Mike DeGrazia has dished out nine assists in 12 games versus TC this season.

Niemann (49 pts.) leads the North Stars (15-19-11) with 31 assists and a +18 plus-minus rating, is second with 49 points, and had four helpers in last weekend’s twin-bill at Mahoning. He also dished out a pair of assists in Sunday’s all-star opener. Bonis has 21 points in just 24 games with TC, and has four goals in his past four games.

Friday’s game is set to face off at 7 p.m., while Saturday’s capstone contest gets underway at 7:30 p.m. The Stars will head to Ann Arbor on Wednesday to face the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad.

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