Don’t look now, but with a little over a month left in the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) 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 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.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Zach Smith (Anchorage) connected for the Avalanche’s only goal of the week in three losses to Fairbanks.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Forwards Chris Cass (Lakeville, Minn.) and Anthony Iaquinto (Brighton, Mich.) each connected for two goals in the Thunder’s 6-5 loss to Topeka on Friday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Defenseman Mike Krieg (Phoenix) rang up a goal and two assists in the Blizzard’s 4-3 win over Owatonna on Saturday. In the two-game series, he recorded seven blocked shots and logged 25-30 minutes of ice per game.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Goaltender Marco Wieser (Austria) picked up all three wins in the IceDiggers’ three-game sweep over Motor City, including a 42-save shutout performance on Friday (3-0).
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Forward Casey Kleisinger (Edwards, Colo.) has committed to the Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey) for next season. He’s the 10th current NAHL player to announce his intention to play for the Colorado Springs school.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: In his return to the lineup from injury - his first games in February - forward Justin Kirchhevel (Brookings, S.D.) connected for two goals and an assist in three wins over Alaska. He was also a plus-3.
JANESVILLE JETS: Forward Rui Encarnacao (White Plains, N.Y) has committed to the University of Connecticut (Atlantic Hockey) for next season. He’s the first player in Jets history to decide on a Division I school.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Idle last weekend, the Brown Bears return to action on Thursday when they begin a three-game series in Wenatchee.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Forward Andrew Kolb (Toledo, Ohio) potted a pair of goals, including the game-winner, in the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over Motor City on Monday, February 15.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Forward Eric Millisor (Ecorse, Mich.) connected for two goals and an assist in the Metal Jackets’ 4-3 overtime loss to Alpena on Saturday.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: Forward Jamie Knight’s (Hanover, N.H.) sister, Hilary Knight, is a forward on the U.S. Women’s Team competing at the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Forward Blake Schammel (Red Wing, Minn.) assisted on both goals in the Express’ 4-2 loss to Alexandria on Friday. He was also a plus-2.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: With last weekend off, the Jr. Blues take on St. Louis on Wednesday before a two-game series against Janesville beginning on Friday.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Forward Craig Kitto (Ashburn, Va.) tallied a goal and two assists in the Bandits’ 7-2 triumph over Wichita Falls on Sunday.
TEXAS TORNADO: Forwards Rock Einersen (Chicago) and Tyler Underhill (East Aurora, N.Y.) each netted a goal and an assist in the Tornado’s 3-2 overtime loss to Wenatchee on Friday.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Goaltender Eric Roherkemper (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) stopped all 22 shots as the RoadRunners blanked Albert Lea on Saturday, 4-0. “Eric made the routine saves, but also made some big ones when we needed him,” said assistant coach R.J. Enga.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Forward Doug Clifford (Woodhaven, Mich.) added to his team-leading point totals (43) with a goal and an assist in two losses to Janesville.
WENATCHEE WILD: Forward Jeff Jubinville (Edmonton), a Bemidji State University recruit, recorded a hat trick - all power-play goals - in the Wild’s 5-2 victory over Texas on Saturday.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Forward Brian Sheehan (St. Louis) picked up a goal and four assists as the Wildcats skated to a 2-1 record against St. Louis. He leads the Wildcats in scoring with 51 points (25 goals).