Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stephenson eyes No. 1 job in TC net

If momentum can carry over from one season to the next, then Traverse City North Stars goalie Brandon Stephenson will flourish in his role as the team’s frontline netminder.

Following a narrow 3-2 loss to eventual North American Hockey League champion St. Louis back on Jan. 18, Stephenson turned a corner. He suffered just a pair of regulation losses over the final two-and-a-half months of the 2007-08 season, engineered the first shutout in North Stars’ history on Feb. 27 and allowed two or fewer goals in six of his final eight starts.

“I got more confidence as we went along,” explained the 20-year-old Stephenson, who backstopped the Gold Team during Friday’s tryout camp opener at Centre ICE arena. “We had a month there where we barley lost at all, and it was a matter of being more confident in myself and my abilities. And when Chris (Paliafito) got here, that pushed me a bit, too.”

While Stephenson cites his renewed poise as the fulcrum of his season, Traverse City goaltending coach Bob Fernandez frames his analysis of Stephenson’s resurgence in terms of technique.

“He did alter his style a bit,” Fernandez said. “We had been telling him to get his rear end down, which he did. He started moving faster to the puck and really limiting the rebounds.”

With Paliafito now playing for the USHL’s Indiana Ice, Stephenson enters 2008-09 as the incumbent in TC. North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo is hopeful that Stephenson’s winning ways will carry over.

“By the end of the year, we had an excellent tandem with Brandon and Chris,” Palumbo said. “There was an initial adjustment period, but once they became acclimated to juniors they finished strong. This year, Brandon won’t have that luxury. He’s a veteran now, and he’ll have to be ready to go from day one.”

Stephenson, who started 26 games last year, says he’s ready for any increase in workload that comes his way.

“I know I won’t be the only guy, but of course I want to be the starting goalie,” he offered. “Like anyone would, I’d love to be a 40- or 45-game workhorse. I just have to come to camp and compete like I’m trying to prove I deserve a spot on this team, that I can be the starter.”

According to Fernandez, it won’t be for a lack of effort on the part of ‘Brando,’ as teammates have dubbed him.

“Brandon brings a real work ethic to the rink every day," said Fernandez. "He’s willing to put in the work, and it’s intrinsic. You don’t have to ask him to bring it out. He goes hard every time he takes the ice.”

Stephenson and his fellow campers continue their three-day hockey odyssey on Saturday with a pair of round-robin sessions. Following the evening session, Palumbo, Fernandez, and the rest of the Stars staff will select players to participate in Sunday’s camp-culminating all-star game. The top performers from that contest will be invited to the club’s July 25-27 training camp, along with those from the Stars’ May pre-draft camp.

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