Tuesday, October 27, 2009

North Stars on top of North Division

Courtesy NAHL

With splits in their previous three series, the Traverse City North Stars celebrated a sweep last weekend knocking off the Marquette Rangers twice to take possession of first place in the North Division standings.

“We have a lot of respect for Marquette, and any time you take two from a divisional opponent it’s significant,” said North Stars head coach Anthony Palumbo, whose team improved to 10-4-1 on the season. “I’m pleased with our start, but I think there’s room for improvement.”

Eric McLintock (pictured) unleashed for a hat trick and two assists, including one on Kyle Jean’s game-winning marker, in the North Stars’ 7-2 triumph on Saturday. Josh Miller and defenseman Curtis Heinz each added a goal and an assist and goaltender Drew Strandberg turned aside 15 shots.

The following afternoon, Strandberg stopped all 16 shots he faced as Traverse City blanked the Rangers, 4-0. Jean connected for a pair of goals in the victory, including the game-winner, and linemates Doug Clifford (three assists) and Nick Shkreli (goal, two assists) each fashioned three-point games.

“We’ve been relying on too many individual efforts to be successful, but last weekend I saw us play a better team game,” said Palumbo. “I like the fact, too, that we don't rely on one person or line to score; I like our balance.”

Palumbo is also high on his team’s veteran leadership, which includes McLintock and Jean, a Lake Superior State University recruit who returned to the lineup recently after recovering from an offseason injury. Both third-year forwards are proving their worth on and off the ice.

“Eric has skill and provides us with a physical presence and Kyle is a very dynamic kid and his impact has been immediate,” said Palumbo. “It’s good to see those guys grow into leaders after being here for a couple of years.”

The same can be said for defenseman Travis White. Another North Star in his third NAHL season, the 19-year-old captain from Sterling Heights, is logging a ton of minutes on the blue line in all key situations.

“Travis is the consummate team player and always puts the team first,” said Palumbo.

Of the newcomers, forward Andy Huff has wasted no time making his presence felt. Tied for the league lead in goals with 12, the 17-year-old sharpshooter from Howell was tabbed by NHL Central Scouting on its “Watch List” for 2010 draft-eligibles released last week.

“He’s been an impact player for us from Day 1,” Palumbo said of the Honeybaked Midget Major product. “He has the ability to shoot the puck from all areas of the ice and score.

“With his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and skill, I can see why people regard him so highly. Andy definitely has the ability to continue to be a consistent scorer in our league and at the next level.”

Another first-year North Star, Strandberg has begun to settle in between the pipes. The 20-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont., native who played last season in the Superior International Junior League now has eight wins on the season to accompany a 2.51 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.

“Drew continues to get more comfortable,” said Palumbo. “He had an adjustment period from the SIJHL, but you can see his confidence growing each day. He was very consistent last weekend and made some big saves when we needed them.”

The arrivals of Clifford, formerly of the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, and Kelin Ainsworth, another Lake State recruit who also toiled last season in the SIJHL, have helped bolster the North Stars’ attack, too.

“Doug has provided us with offense and grit. He’s a very competitive player who’s at his best when he’s challenged,” said Palumbo. “And Kelin plays with a lot of intensity and has also helped with our offensive punch.”

Off the ice, the North Stars have been enthused with the support around town, especially the response to the team’s cancer awareness game against the Janesville Jets on Oct. 16, which drew over 1,000 in attendance.

“I think, like any team, if we can be successful we’ll continue to see (attendance) grow,” said Palumbo. “That and having new additional local owners (which includes Rich and Raj Wiener and former Detroit Red Wing Dallas Drake, among others) has made a difference in the community as well.”

Bullish on his team’s NCAA potential, four of Palumbo’s players have already committed to Division I programs with all of them - Ainsworth, Jean, Tyler Marble and Dan Radke - heading to Lake Superior.

A coincidence, says Palumbo.

“The Lake Superior connection is just a fluke, quite frankly,” he said. “Aside from Ainsworth, we were interested in all of those players before Lake Superior committed to them.

“Obviously, its proximity to Traverse City (which is roughly 150 miles from Sault Ste. Marie) and my relationship with the staff (Lakers head coach Jim Roque and Palumbo played together at the school) helps, but we have several other college programs watching our team and we promote our players to every school.”

With this coming weekend off, the North Stars will get to recharge the batteries before a home-and-home set against the Alpena IceDiggers on Nov. 6-7.

“Our focus moving forward is to continue to improve on a day-to-day basis,” said Palumbo. “The team needs to come first and everything else will hopefully take care of itself.”

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