After new head coach Bill Warren took over the Port Huron Fighting Falcons right before Christmas, then picking up his first career NAHL win back on Jan. 7, there was reason for optimism for the Port Huron Fighting Falcons, who won just their second game of the season.
“Our guys are finishing complete games and working hard,” Warren said in a recent interview. “There is a lot of optimism because things are changing.”
The Fighting Falcons then added Matt Warren as an assistant coach. Warren, brother of Bill, is very familiar with the NAHL as he was a two-time NAHL all-star in the 1990s when he played for the Compuware Ambassadors. The younger Warren brings with him full knowledge of the talent level in the NAHL, and has seen firsthand the career path most Junior A hockey players aspire for.
Part of that change for the Falcons wasn’t just the coaching staff. The roster has seen many changes, too. As a matter of fact, the Fighting Falcons have made more player moves than any other team in the NAHL in an effort to find the right mix.
One of those recent acquisitions that’s paid off has been forward James Rudi Pino. After playing the first 26 games for the Aberdeen Wings, Pino was traded to Port Huron on New Year’s Day and is the Fighting Falcons’ leading scorer. In six games with Port Huron, Pino has four points. Combine that with the 23 he had with Aberdeen and the 21-year-old has put together a fine season under adverse conditions.
One of the more unique stories for the Fighting Falcons has been 19-year-old forward Adam Frank. Yes, Frank is second on the active roster with 18 points, but, maybe even more impressively, Frank is the only Port Huron player to have played in every game this season. Through all the roster, lineup and personnel changes, that is saying something.
With six out of the eight teams in the North Division at .500 or better, one of the major obstacles for the Fighting Falcons has been the schedule itself. With the likes of St. Louis, Janesville, Motor City and Michigan playing lights-out hockey, the Fighting Falcons schedule reads like a horror novel. Including Thursday night’s 5-2 loss against the league’s most potent offense in Motor City, the next 12 games for Port Huron are against divisional opponents who would be in the playoffs if they started today.
But, the Falcons, behind their resilience and new leadership, will keep fighting, because that’s what they do. The Fighting Falcons may not make the playoffs this season, but they’ll have a say down the stretch who may make the playoffs in the North Division.
And, with the new leadership behind the bench, it’s reasonable to think the Falcons will be fighting straight into next season.
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: It was a split for the Hitmen at home with the visiting Dawson Creek Rage. On Friday, forward and leading scorer Gabe Gervais scored two goals and an assist, including the game-winning goal in a 5-3 win. Forward Vincent Somma also had three points in the win (1g, 2a). Goaltender Brennan Knoblock made a season-high 43 saves. The next night, the Rage exacted some revenge, defeating the Chicago 5-2. Hitmen forward Jacob McDowell scored his first goal if the season in the loss. The Hitmen have a chance to gain some ground in the standings with a pair of home games this weekend against Traverse City.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets continued their hot play, taking three of four possible points on the road in Motor City last weekend, increasing their second-place lead to four points over the third-place Metal Jackets. On Friday, the Jets got two goals from Larkin Jacobson in a 6-3 win. Goaltender David Jacobson made 20 saves and picked up his 20th win of the season. On Saturday, defenseman Alex Brooks tied the game with less than a minute remaining in regulation to earn Janesville a valuable road point in a 4-3 overtime loss against the Metal Jackets. Janesville begins a four-game homestand this weekend against the Springfield Jr. Blues.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: After a bye weekend, the Warriors face one of their toughest tests of the season as they travel to St. Louis this weekend for the beginning of a six-game road swing with two games against the division-leading Bandits. The Warriors are 1-2-0 against St. Louis this year, with their lone win against the Bandits coming in a shootout in Flint back on Oct. 15. Forward Justin Hoomaian leads Michigan with three points in the three games against the Bandits. Newly acquired forward Ryan Green has four points in his three games with the Warriors with only four penalty minutes. Previously, Green had 96 penalty minutes in 25 games with Port Huron. The Warriors don’t play another home game until Feb. 12.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Forward RJ Kleiman almost single-handedly took out the Janesville Jets last Saturday, as the forward from DeWitt, Mich., scored a hat trick and an assist in a 4-3 Metal Jackets overtime win. It was the second hat trick of the season for the NAHL’s second leading scorer, who is just seven points behind teammate Cody Wydo for the league scoring title. Despite the Metal Jackets loss to the Jets on Friday where Kleiman added an assist, he was named as the NAHL’s North Division Player of the Week. The Metal Jackets have three games with Port Huron this week, including two at home Friday and Saturday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Springfield begins a four-game road trip after a bye weekend last week, which will begin Friday night in Janesville for two games against the Jets and continue the final weekend in January with two more tough games at South Division-leading Topeka. The Jr. Blue acquired power forward Jonathan Sdao from the Corpus Christi IceRays last week in a trade and sent defenseman Ethan Scherer to Fresno. Goaltender Andrew Martin has played the fifth most minutes of any goaltender in the NAHL this season. The Jr. Blues are currently five points out of the fourth and final playoff spot, which is shared by both Michigan and Traverse City.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: There may be no stopping the Bandits run to the North Division regular season title. With three more wins, all at home, over the Port Huron Fighting Falcons last week the Bandits increased their lead to 13 points in the North Division. The Bandits outscored the Fighting Falcons by a combined 19-2 in the three-game series. With the wins, the Bandits became the first team in the NAHL to reach 60 points this season and are tied for the most goals in the NAHL with 156 goals. Forward Evan Stibbard had seven points in the three games to lead the Bandits, which included a three-point night on Friday. The Bandits continue their homestand this weekend with two more home games against the Michigan Warriors.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: After a bye weekend, the North Stars look to continue their current two-game winning streak with two road games in Chicago. Following that, it’s seven straight home games for Traverse City, who find themselves tied with Michigan for the fourth and final playoff spot. The North Stars have won four of their last five games to keep pace in the North; however, they have played a league-low 33 games to date. Third-year forward Tim Opie leads the North Stars offensive attack with 33 points in 33 games, and is riding an 11-game point streak. The North Stars are a perfect 3-0 against the Hitmen this season. Goaltender Tyler Marble is fifth in the NAHL with 17 wins.