Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Alpena gets back on track with sweep

Courtesy NAHL

Losers of four straight games, the Alpena IceDiggers came back to life last weekend with a morale-inspiring two-game sweep over the Motor City Machine.

“Obviously, it was big for us to break out of that slump. That and the fact that every aspect of our game was struggling,” said IceDiggers assistant coach Josh Harrold, whose team improved to 22-15-5 on the season. “It was nice to get back on track.”

Erik Peterson’s third-period goal lifted the IceDiggers to a 5-4 victory on Friday. Peterson also chipped in two assists and Ryan Timar (goal, assist), Sam Cheraso (goal, assist) and Jay Camper (two assists) each recorded two-point nights. Nick Graves turned aside 20 shots to pick up the win in goal.

The next night, four different players lit the lamp for Alpena as it doubled up the Machine, 4-2. Adam Bristol connected for the game-winning marker and Graves made 18 saves.

“We played better defensively and, because of that, we created more opportunities offensively,” said Harrold.

And Peterson took advantage.

The 20-year-old from Alpena (pictured) put home a goal and three assists last weekend to lead the team’s offensive charge.

“It was nice to get Erik back on track,” said Harrold of his team’s leading scorer, now in his fourth season with the IceDiggers. “He’s struggled to find his scoring touch recently. Hopefully, it stays around.”

A mainstay between the IceDiggers’ pipes, Graves also rebounded last weekend, picking up his 17th and 18th wins of the season to go along with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

“Nick has been good all season, but like everyone else around here, he’s been struggling lately,” said Harrold of the 20-year-old keeper from Hewitt, Wis. “It was good to see him bounce back, too.”

Veteran defensemen Ryan Sell, Jerrod Hartman and JC Gulch also put forth better efforts last weekend, as did first-year blueliners Jason Souva, Bristol and Scott Eberline. Offensively, Tyler Pilmore, John Fritsche, Andy Yarber and Jim McCusker have delivered with consistency all season, with Camper and Timar and Cheraso and Jordan Miller working well together on their respective lines. Mike DeGrazia has also proved his worth, connecting for some big goals lately.

The IceDiggers also got a big boost upfront with the recent additions Jon Puskar and Richard Manley, both of whom were acquired from the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. Puskar, who played for Alpena last season, tallied a goal and an assist in his first two games last weekend, while Manley picked up an assist.

“These two guys will bring some much-needed leadership and offense to our team, which we’ve struggled with in recent weeks,” said Harrold. “Their arrival should help spark some of our other players, which it seemed to do last weekend.”

Given the strength of the NAHL’s North Division, the IceDiggers knew they’d have a fight on their hands in their quest for a playoff berth. Sitting in third place behind the division-leading Mahoning Valley Phantoms and the second-place Traverse City North Stars, Alpena is taking nothing for granted with 16 games left in its regular season.

“We’re right where we thought we’d be, chasing Mahoning Valley and Traverse City,” said Harrold. “Every game, with the exception of a few, have been decided by one goal, and we don't see that changing down the stretch. There are no easy games in our division.”

And Harrold likes the character of his team, especially when times get tough. That trait could pay dividends as the postseason nears.

“We have a great dressing room,” he said. “These guys stick together through adversity and we believe that unity we help them achieve their goal of making the playoffs. If we play like a team and are willing to pay the ultimate price shift by shift, game by game, we have a chance to win, just like everybody else.”

The IceDiggers don’t have any players committed to Division I schools just yet, but, with a strong finish and a meaningful playoff run, Harrold is confident that will change.

“We have players who’ve made great improvements this season and we’ve had conversations with a lot of (college) coaches,” said the coach. “A lot of our guys know they’re being watched and some don't know they’re being watched.

“Regardless, we anticipate many of our players to make commitments soon.”

Photo by Robert Meyer/NAHL

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