It's only October, but with just six points separating the first- and sixth-place teams in the NAHL's North Division, the Alpena IceDiggers aren't discounting the importance of their two wins over the Traverse City North Stars last weekend.
"For us to be able to pick up four points was huge because our division is so tight right now," said IceDiggers coach-GM Kenny Miller, whose team improved to 6-4-1. "You can't afford to give away points or you'll find yourself playing catch-up."
On Friday, goaltender Nate Pellegrino turned aside all 30 shots as the IceDiggers blanked the North Stars, 1-0. Jimmy McCusker scored the only goal of the game in the second period, with assists going to Erik Peterson and Isaac Viau.
The next night, four different IceDiggers struck for goals in a 4-1 win over Traverse City. Defenseman Ryan Sell netted the game-winner, while Jon Puskar and Viau each added a goal and an assist. Between the pipes, Pellegrino made 33 saves.
"For being a young team, I'm happy with the way we've started," said Miller, whose team has 13 points after 11 games, tied with Mahoning Valley and Traverse City. "We compete every night and, as a coach, that's all you can ask for."
The IceDiggers couldn't ask much more of Pellegrino. With five straight periods of shutout hockey last weekend - Traverse City's only goal came in the third period on Saturday - the 19-year-old from Woodlyn, Pa., has fueled Alpena's recent success.
"When we picked him up, this is the type of play we thought we would get from him," said Miller, who acquired Pellegrino in a trade with Alaska in the offseason. "Nate was the difference last weekend. When we needed the save, we got it, and that allowed us to win both nights."
On the offensive end, veterans Peterson, who leads team in scoring with 16 points (five goals) after 11 games, and McCusker (four goals for 11 points) have also lived up to early expectations.
"Erik and Jimmy put up numbers last year for us, too, and we knew we'd need scoring from them this year in order to have success and they've come through so far," said Miller. "They need to continue to be a force for us every time they go out on the ice."
One pleasant surprise has been the offensive production from the first-year Puskar, an 18-year-old who ranks second on the IceDiggers' scoring chart with 13 points (five goals).
"I knew he was a hard-working kid, but I didn't realize the skill set that he has," said Miller. "He's a threat to score every time he's out there."
Viau is also seeing results through his strong work ethic ("He just plays at full speed all the time," said Miller), as has Tyler Pilmore, whose efforts should translate onto the scoresheet in short time, according to his coach.
"For a first-year guy, he's playing like a veteran," said Miller.
On the blue line, veterans Evan West, Carl Nielsen and Tim Olson are doing their part in helping lead a relatively inexperience defensive corps.
"Our defense is starting to play the way I thought it would," said Miller. "They're moving the puck and getting us going on the offense end. We feel we have guys that can score, we just need to continue to get better in our on end."
Up next for the IceDiggers is a two-game set against Mahoning Valley. The teams split a pair of games in Alpena earlier this month.
"They're a strong team with a lot of veterans so they know how to win," said Miller. "With our division so tight, we have to come ready to play both nights to give our team a chance."