Wednesday, March 10, 2010

North Stars entering home stretch

In a sense, the playoff have already begun for the Traverse City North Stars.

With just eight games remaining in the regular season and the Stars training North Division-leading Marquette by four points, every contest takes on added significance – starting with Wednesday’s stand-alone matchup with Alpena at Centre ICE arena.

“Not only are we fighting for our playoff position and dreaming of home-ice (advantage in the first round), but Alpena is playing as well as anyone in the league right now,” said Traverse City head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “They just swept Marquette at home and lost by a single goal in the third one up there, but they look like they’re very hungry to join the playoff mix.”

The IceDiggers (20-29-2) trail fourth-place Motor City by nine points with seven games left on the docket – including four head-to-head matchups with the Metal Jackets. Alpena has won six of its last seven, and have posted a blistering 9-3-1 record since Jan. 23. They’ve done it without longtime Diggers standouts Jimmy McCusker and Ryan Timar, both of whom were traded away this year. John Fristche is the club’s top gun, with 21 goals and 19 assists – including eight goals in the 12 meetings with Traverse City in 2009-10. Marco Wieser has been in net for all four of the Diggers’ wins in the season series, including a pair of shutouts.

“They play with a pace, tempo and energy that we have to play with as well or we’ll have our hands full,” Palumbo opined. “And it should be easy for us to maintain that kind of intensity from here on out. This is what you play for, where you want to be when you’re through the meat of a 58-game schedule. If we have any dreams of holding off (third-place) Janesville for home ice, or even catching Marquette, that kind of passion has to be there.”

Garrett Thompson, who leads the North Stars (27-18-5) with 22 goals, has racked nearly one-third of that total (7) against Alpena. Doug Clifford has a TC-best 45 points, Dan Radke is the top playmaker with 26 assists and Eric McLintock has 19 goals to go along with 17 assists. Drew Strandberg, who is slated to start Wednesday’s contest, is 18-8-2 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.

The North Stars will have the weekend off before closing out the year on a torrid pace: Seven games in 11 days, starting with a St. Patrick’s Day showdown with Motor City at Centre ICE. The first-place Rangers come into TC for a three-game weekend set Mar. 19-21. 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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