Thursday, April 02, 2009

North Stars get tough Phantoms in first round

Back on March 13, the Traverse City North Stars turned a 2-2 second period tie at Mahoning Valley into a 9-2 loss, with the host Phantoms rattling off the final seven scores of the contest.

Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo and staff were rankled, to say the least.

Since that time, Traverse City has gone 6-0-1 – including a pair of subsequent victories at Mahoning – and will look to continue their elevated play well into the NAHL Playoffs. The North Stars will open their first postseason since 2006 on Friday at the same place where the club’s late-season resurgence kicked off: Mahoning Valley.

“We lost 9-2 and it wasn’t that close,” Palumbo recalled. “But since then, we’ve worked very hard to fix the things that put us in that position, and so far the results have been encouraging. Now we put it to the test with the season on the line.”

While TC actually won seven of the teams’ 13 meetings this season, Mahoning has the decided advantage in playoff experience. The Phantoms have advanced to the NAHL championship game in each of the past two seasons.

“It’s the playoffs, so the intensity is certainly up a notch,” continued Palumbo. “Over the course of a 58-game (regular season) schedule, you know you’ll probably drop a game here or there along the way. In the playoffs, there is no such room for error. They know that, and they’ve won some (playoff) series over the years. But we’re hoping we can match their energy. We’re very excited to go.”

The Phantoms, who led the NAHL North Division for most of the season, fell into second place on the final night of the regular season, with Team USA overtaking the two-time national runners-up for the top seed in the playoffs. Mahoning went 36-17-5, finishing a mere two points ahead of Traverse City for the final home-ice position.

“We never really focused on one team or the other,” Palumbo explained. “We knew that either way it fell, we were going to have to go up against one of the best teams in the league. We welcome the challenge no matter who we line up against.”

Stefan Salituro leads the Phantoms with 48 points, including a team-high 34 assists, while Brandon Saad (47 pts.) is the club’s top goal-scorer with 29. Jordy Trottier (46 pts.) and Nick Shkreli (44) are also among Mahoning’s top threats. Nick Kenney had seven goals in 13 outings against the North Stars this year. Goalie Jordan Tibbett is 5-3-1 versus TC, with a 2.08 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

“They have some real game-changers that we can’t lose track of,” Palumbo said. “But they also have a lot of depth. They are a pretty solid team, front-to-back.”

The North Stars’ top scorers – Kyle Bonis and Kyle Jean – have been at their best against Mahoning this year. Each has seven goals in 13 contests, with Bonis assisting on nine other tallies. Bonis set a team record this year with 30 lamplighters, and leads the NAHL with eight game-winners. C.J. Motte had the finest statistical season in team history for a netkeeper, going 22-9-2 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .918 save percentage to go with his three shutout efforts.

“I’ve watched game films of five Traverse City-Mahoning Valley games so far, and the team that works the hardest has won every one of ‘em,” Palumbo said. “I think we’re fairly close in terms of talent and depth, but we’ll have to outwork them if we want to advance.”

The series opens at the opulent Chevrolet Centre in downtown Youngstown on Friday, followed by a Sunday matinee. The best-of-five series shifts to Traverse City next Thursday and Friday (Apr. 9 and 10), with a decisive Game 5 slated for Easter Sunday in Mahoning should it become necessary.

The b2 Network will provide the video feed of the series, while free audio play-by-play can be heard at

NAHL North Division semifinals (Best-of-5)
Game 1: Friday, April 3 at Mahoning Valley, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Sunday, April 5 at Mahoning Valley, 3 p.m.
Game 3: Thursday, April 9 at Traverse City, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4: Friday, April 10 at Traverse City, 7:05 p.m.*
Game 5: Sunday, April 12 at Mahoning Valley, 7 p.m.*

* = if necessary

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