Friday, February 06, 2009

North Stars travel to Mahoning Valley for three

If home is truly where the heart is, then the Traverse City North Stars extended road trip should put their cardiac cohesiveness to the test.

The North Stars will spend the next seven games away from Centre ICE arena, starting with this weekend’s all-important three-game set at first-place Mahoning Valley.

“I think we’re taking it as a big challenge,” said Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo, whose team has been a scant two points behind the Phantoms for nearly a month now. “It’s the division leader – the best team in our division right now, maybe in the entire league – for three games in their building. It’s a big test to see how we stack up. And if we needed anything to get in the road-trip frame of mind, this is the series.”

The Stars took two of three from Mahoning Valley in the teams’ last series – Jan. 2-4 at Centre ICE – but the Phantoms have been rolling ever since, winning six of eight including a two-game sweep of Alpena last weekend by a combined 15-3 margin.

“They’re strength is in their depth, players one through 20,” Palumbo added. “And they use them all. They have some high-end individuals as well, like (Brandon) Saad and (Nick) Shkreli – guys that are special, game-changing players. You can’t take a single shift off against these guys.”

Jordy Trottier leads Mahoning with 33 points, while Saad (team-high 19 goals) and Shkreli have amassed 30 points this season. Recently-acquired Josh Bussell, who has spent time with Marquette and Motor City this season, has 29 points over 33 games with three clubs. The Phantoms boast a potent 1-2 tandem in net, led by all-star Jordan Tibbett (17-5-1, 2.59 GAA, .907 SV%). Garrett Bartus is 9-5-2 in his 17 starts.

“A three-game weekend like this means your depth is going to be tested more,” said Palumbo. “The nice thing is that we have confidence in all 25 of our guys. We feel like we can compete no matter which combination we put on the ice.”

Kyle Bonis leads Traverse City (24-9-5) with 44 points in 37 contests, and is closing in on his own team record for goals with 25. Bonis and Nate Urbaniak scored 25 each to set the mark last season. Urbaniak (27 pts.) had a pair of goals and an assist in the Stars’ sweep of Motor City last weekend, and has seven points in the last six games. Kyle Jean (26 pts.) and Marc Thompson (24, pictured) round out the North Stars 20-point club.

Traverse City owns a pair of pipe aces of its own, with C.J. Motte (13-4-2, 2.30 GAA, .913 SV%) allowing a mere five goals over his current five-game win streak and Brandon Stephenson (11-5-3, 2.72, .893) coming off a near-perfect Saturday outing in a 2-1 win over the Machine.

After a 6-3 win at Alpena on New Year’s Eve, TC is 9-3, including the team’s current six-game win streak. Mahoning (26-10-3) leads the hotly-contested NAHL North Division with 55 points, followed closely by TC (53), Team USA (45), Alpena (45) and Marquette (43). Motor City (13 pts.) seems unlikely to challenge for one of the four playoff spots up for grabs, but one of the top five clubs will finish the 58-game slate without a postseason dance partner.

“It’s the time when teams are up against it, and with all the bus time we’ll have together, we need to be a close-knit group,” Palumbo opined. “You almost have to take an ‘us-against-the-world’ approach.”

The Stars and Phantoms will face off at 7:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, followed by a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee.

Photo by Robert Meyer/NAHL

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