Friday, March 13, 2009

North Stars off to Mahoning Valley for three

Somewhere deep in the regular season schedule, teams enter a transitional phase – where games still count in the regular season standings, but each contest takes on added significance with playoff implications at every turn.

The Traverse City North Stars have entered that post-regular season/pre-playoff chapter, and this weekend’s three-game series at the first-place Mahoning Valley Phantoms is chock-full of postseason repercussions.

The Stars can clinch one of the three remaining playoff berths in the NAHL North Division with a victory in any of their final eight games, and is two points back of Team USA for home ice in the first round.

“At this point, we’re still trying to clinch but every game left is already like a playoff game,” said Traverse City head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “We always use the cliché that you just play every game to win it and the other stuff will take care of itself, but it’s especially true at this point of the year.”

While the first-place Phantoms have yet to sew up the NAHL North Division regular season crown, they are teetering on the precipice. Mahoning leads second-place Team USA by seven points and is nine up on third-place Traverse City, and is a sterling 10-2-2 in its last 14 outings. The Phantoms took two of three from the North Stars during the teams’ last series, Feb. 6-8 in Youngstown.

TC is coming off a two-game sweep at the hands of the Team USA Under-18s, but Palumbo says a replication of his team’s performance will likely yield better results this weekend.

“I know it sounds a bit strange after losing twice, but if we play the way we did last weekend, we’ll stay with Mahoning all weekend,” he explained. “We had good energy and intensity, and you can pretty much pinpoint the places where we lost those games.

“We knew this was going to be the toughest stretch of the (regular) season with two at the USA-18s and three at Mahoning, and I like the way we came out against USA. We have to maintain that level of play but get the results.”

Mahoning is coming off a two-game lambasting of sixth-place Motor City, outscoring the Machine by a 17-7 margin in the process. Brandon Saad (25 goals) and Jordy Trottier (26 assists) lead the club with 42 points each, while Stefan Salituro (41) and Nick Shkrelli (39) are also dynamic offensive performers. Nick Kenney broke off four goals in his last two versus Traverse City. Jordan Tibbett leads the Phantoms’ goalkeeping crew with a 22-6-2 record, 2.41 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

Traverse City captain Kyle Bonis leads the visitors with 24 goals, 24 assists and 48 points. He is one score from tying the team single-season record he and Nate Urbaniak (pictured) achieved a season ago. Kyle Jean has 19 goals to go with as many assists, while Urbaniak – the Stars’ career leader with 106 points - has 33 this year. Dan Radke has caught fire of late, with nine points over his last six games.

C.J. Motte is in the process of re-writing the team record book for goalies, setting a single-season mark for victories (16), and is on pace to own the single-season goals-against average (2.38) and save percentage (.913) benchmarks.

The Stars and Phantoms will square off at the Chevy Center in downtown Youngstown at 7:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee to wrap.

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