Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alpena making late-season charge

Courtesy NAHL

Don’t look now, but with a little over a month left in the North American Hockey League’s regular season, there’s a race heating up for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division.

Currently settled in fifth place and out of the playoff picture, the red-hot Alpena IceDiggers - 7-2-1 in their last 10 games - are starting to make their move, thanks in part to a three-game sweep over the Motor City Metal Jackets last weekend.

“Motor City is a great team and they created a lot of good scoring chances,” said IceDiggers head coach Jack Fritsche, whose team improved to 18-28-2 on the season. “All three games could have gone either way with a bounce here or there for either team.”

Goaltender Marco Wieser turned aside all 42 shots he faced as the IceDiggers opened the weekend with a 3-0 victory on Friday.

Michael Henderson (game-winner), Andy Yarber and Jared Williams connected for the Alpena goals.

The next night, Tom Hilbrich’s overtime marker - his second of the game - lifted Alpena to a 4-3 victory over the Metal Jackets. John Fritsche (pictured) and Joel Benson rang up the other IceDigger goals, and Wieser stopped 30 shots between the pipes.

On Sunday, Williams lit the lamp two more times and Jonas Vassalli put home the game-winner as the IceDiggers skated to a 3-1 victory. Wieser made 37 saves to pick up his third win in as many nights.

“Our success right now is because, for the first time since November, we have a full roster of players,” said Fritsche. “For a stretch there we had defensemen playing forward and vice versa, and it’s hard to win games when you’re doing that.

“Having a full complement of players has allowed us to build some chemistry during practice and work on different things over the past two or three weeks that we were unable to do while players were injured.”

Fritsche, whose team sits seven points behind Motor City with 10 games to play (the IceDiggers have four remaining against the Metal Jackets), couldn’t be happier with the production he’s getting throughout his entire lineup.

“Right now, it’s been a total team effort,” he said. “A different guy each night has stepped their game up and provided a spark. Our guys understand the challenge that lies ahead, and they’ve done a tremendous job so far of staying in the moment and not getting ahead of themselves.”

The IceDiggers have also been helped by the arrival of a few fresh faces over the course of the season, all of whom have fit right in, both on and off the ice.

“We were very fortunate with some of the new players we’ve gotten because we have a great group of kids here and the new guys just came in and meshed right away, which was great,” said Fritsche.

And the IceDiggers’ success of late is peaking the interest of a handful of colleges, according to Fritsche, who anticipates a number of his players receiving offers in the not-too-distant future.

“More and more schools have been in contact with our guys throughout the season and I have little doubt that many of them will be getting opportunities here shortly,” he said.

Fritsche is also quick to credit the community and fan support in and around Alpena, which has stood by the IceDiggers despite a fragile economy.

“It hasn’t been easy on them, yet they still come out and support our guys,” he said. “We’ve had some great battles at home this season and have fallen short on some occasions, but they’re still supporting our players which speaks volumes for the character and passion our fans have for the game and our players.”

Photo courtesy RJ Meyer/NAHL

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