Friday, March 19, 2010

Big series this weekend in Traverse City

There are big showdowns, and then there is this weekend’s gargantuan series between the Marquette Rangers and host Traverse City North Stars.

The teams are tied for the top spot in the North American Hockey League’s North Division with 63 points each, with just six games remaining in the regular season. They’ll play a three-game set at Centre ICE arena on Friday, Saturday and Sunday that will go a long way in deciding who will wear the North crown heading into the playoffs.

Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo isn’t looking for a split – or even a sweep.

“We have six games left and we want to win all six,” he said. “I know the old clichĂ© is to take it one shift, one period and one game at a time, and that’ll be our focus for sure. We have to win Friday to win the rest of ‘em, then we have to win Saturday to win the rest of ‘em, and the same on Sunday.”

Marquette comes into the weekend on the heels of a two-game setback at Janesville, but before that series had gone 13-6-1 since being swept in Traverse City back on Dec. 28-29. The Rangers have won six of the 10 meetings between the teams this year, including a two-game brooming of the Stars at Lakeview Arena on Mar. 5-6.

“They’re a team that plays hard but also has a lot – a LOT – of talent,” Palumbo assessed. “(Andrew) Kolb has hurt us, (Tanner) Kero has to be the rookie of the year in our league, and Garrett Ladd is one of the two or three best forwards in the NAHL. In fact, their top nine forwards are all very dangerous. Then you look at their defense and the numbers that (Kevin) Kissaw has in net, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve been among the top teams all year.”

Ladd leads the Rangers with 57 points, including a team-high 38 assists, while Kolb – who has 13 points over 10 games against Traverse City this year – has 21 goals and 35 assists. Kero leads all NAHL skaters with 30 goals, including six game-winners. Nate Taurence leads Marquette defensemen with five goals, while Kissaw is 22-13-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average. His .922 save percentage is third-best in the league.

While they didn’t connect for any of the Stars’ goals in a 4-1 win over Motor City on Wednesday at Centre ICE, the Garrett Thompson-Nick Shkreli-Doug Clifford line has been among the most productive trios in recent weeks. For the season, the triumvirate has amassed a combined 52 goals and 73 assists, with a +62 plus-minus rating. Thompson, along with Traverse City defenseman Bo Jacobs, is tied for third in the league at +29. Dan Radke has a goal in three straight games, while Eric McLintock has five points over his last five outings.

In net, Drew Strandberg has played the last six games, including a 3-0 shutout of Alpena on Mar. 10. He boasts a 20-8-1 personal record, with a 2.40 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, and is 8-2-2 since Dec. 10.

“This is exactly why you start the regular season – to have a shot at winning your division and going on to a successful playoff run,” Palumbo added. “And here it is, the end of the season and we still have a chance to play for it. It’s not necessarily something you get a shot at every year.”

The North Stars will play their final six games over nine days, beginning with Friday’s 7 p.m. series opener. The Stars and Rangers will clash again on Saturday night at 7 p.m., with the series finale Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. The public can enjoy post-game skates with the Stars after games on Friday and Saturday.

Friday’s game is college night, with buck-per-draft beers and $2 select beers for college students age 21 and over (with ID). On Saturday, the first 100 junior high/middle school students get in free, while season ticketholders can each bring a friend for free on Sunday.

The regular season home finale on Mar. 26 against the Diggers is wedged between road games at Marquette (Mar. 25) and Alpena (Mar. 27).

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