The North Division has been the buzz that last couple of weeks for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s coaching changes, trades or the race for the fourth and final playoff spot, the North has provided plenty of drama for the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and its fans.
Right in the thick of the real-life theater are the Motor City Metal Jackets, who occupy the final playoff spot with the Traverse City North Stars with just 17 games remaining.
“It’s been a real pleasant surprise that the race is this close and the division is this strong,” said Metal Jackets head coach David Cole. “It sounds cliché, but on any given night any team within the North Division can beat on another.”
The Metal Jackets find themselves in the thick of the race thanks to what they were able to accomplish back in November and December when they ran off an eight-game winning streak, which also included a stretch of taking at least one point in 13 of 15 games.
During that stretchm forward Cody Wydo vaulted himself to the top of the NAHL scoring race with a stretch that boggles the mind. Wydo ran off a stretch of 27 games in which he recorded at least a point, which remains tops in the NAHL this season. During that time, Wydo had 55 points, which is why he’s being mentioned in NAHL MVP talk.
“It’s a legitimate argument because he plays at both ends of the ice, which is deceiving because of the numbers he has put up,” said Cole. “He has improved year to year and brings his A-game night in and night out.”
To date, Wydo has put up 76 points and is on pace to reach the magic 100-point mark, which hasn’t happened in the NAHL since the 1994-95 season.
Another reason the Metal Jackets are where they are is defenseman Mike Monfredo.
“He may be the most hated man in the league, but I guarantee he’s a player that every coach would love on his team,” said Cole. “I think he enjoys his role and has evolved into someone we’re playing almost 40 minutes a night. It gives us an opportunity to have the matchups we want on the ice.”
Monfredo, who, along with his teammate Wydo, appeared for Team Miller at the first NAHL Top Prospects event in Boston back in December and leads all NAHL defensemen in points (40) and penalty minutes (152).
With the departure of RJ Kleiman to St. Louis at the NAHL trade deadline, Monfredo was named the team captain.
“He’s a true double-threat when he’s on the ice, which is what makes him so valuable. He was a natural selection to lead this team,” said Cole.
The Metal Jackets however, face their toughest stretch of the season the next month. Motor City’s next 11 games will all be on the road, and with just a 9-8-1 road record this season, Cole believes this road stretch will ultimately determine whether or not his team is playoff bound.
“No doubt, this road trip will make or break our season, but we see it as an opportunity to accomplish something special. We get to play head-to-head games on the road against teams that want those playoff spots. We determine our own fate and destiny, and that’s all we can ask for heading into this stretch. I’m confident our guys will be up to the challenge.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The Hitmen fell in all three games last week, bringing its losing streak to eight games. Chicago was swept in Springfield by the Jr. Blues on Friday and Saturday, and then fell at Janesville on Sunday. Hitmen goaltenders Reid Mimmack and Brennan Knoblock were busy between the pipes, facing a combined 140 shots in the three games. Forward Joey Haydock scored his first goal of the season in Chicago’s 7-2 loss at Janesville on Sunday. The Hitmen remained very quiet at the NAHL trading deadline, as the Hitmen did not make a transaction the final three days leading up to the deadline, standing pat with their current roster. Another tough road challenge faces Chicago this weekend as they travel to Flint to take on the third-place Michigan Warriors for two games.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets remain comfortably in second place in the North Division, 11 points behind division-leading St. Louis, but seven points ahead of third-place Michigan. In the Jets’ lone game last week, they defeated the Chicago Hitmen, 7-2. It was the Jets’ 18th win at home this season, as they continue to have the league’s best home record. Forward Connor McBride scored Janesville’s first three goals within a nine-minute span of the first period, and the Jets were off and running from there. Forward John Olen had two points, as did Ross Mauermann and Joe Horak. The current Janesville winning streak of five games will be put to the test this weekend as they travel to Traverse City for three games in three nights beginning Friday.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: The Michigan Warriors maintained their spot in third place as the won their lone game this past week - a 3-0 shutout win in Traverse City on Friday night. Goaltender Robert Tadazak kept his hot streak going with 33 saves for his second shutout in as many weeks. Tadazak leads the NAHL in save percentage at .936 and just announced his commitment to play for the United States Military Academy next season. Defenseman Ryan Trenz scored the eventual game-winning goal less than five minutes into the game on the power play. Ryan Green and Tyler Perpich also had goals for Michigan in the win. Andrew Kolb, who continues to lead the Warriors in points, registered two more assists bringing his season point total to 45 points. Michigan hosts Chicago for two games this weekend.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: The Fighting Falcons fell in two games at home to the division-leading St. Louis Bandits, but it wasn’t without a fight. James Rudi Pino scored a goal as did Mitch Sand, but it wasn’t enough as the Fighting Falcons fell in overtime, 3-2. Port Huron did get a point for the overtime loss and it also marked the fourth time in the last six games the Fighting Falcons have come away with at least one point in a game. The next night, Port Huron was defeated by the Bandits 7-1, but Pino scored again running his goal-scoring streak to an amazing seven straight games. The seven straight games match an NAHL season-high. The Fighting Falcons look to continue their recent good play with two more home games this weekend against the Motor City Metal Jackets.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: With two big home wins over Chicago, the Springfield Jr. Blues picked up four valuable points in the standings to remain just six points behind the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. On Friday, goaltender Andrew Martin made 34 saves for his second shutout of the season as the Jr. Blues blanked the Chicago Hitmen, 5-0. Forward Taylor Wolfe, who was traded to St. Louis two days later at the trading deadline, netted a hat trick in the win. Mike Williams and Chris Sitler had the other goals for Springfield. On Saturday, Guan Wang scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win over the Hitmen. The Jr. Blues were one of the more active teams at the NAHL trading deadline, completing eight transactions in the final two days. Springfield has a home-and-home series with the division-leading St. Louis Bandits this weekend.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: The Bandits played four games in four days last week and won three of the four to maintain the largest division lead in the NAHL, as they sit 11 points clear in first place in the North Division. However, it was the Bandits’ off-ice moves at the NAHL trading deadline that made the biggest splash this week as they acquired the NAHL’s second-leading scorer RJ Kleiman from the Motor City Metal Jackets on Saturday. Kleiman paid immediate dividends netting the overtime winner in Port Huron in his first game with the Bandits. The Bandits also acquired 14-goal scorer Taylor Wolfe from Springfield at the deadline to help bolster the NAHL’s top offense. The Bandits have a three-week break from action after their home-and-home series with the Springfield Jr. Blues this upcoming weekend.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Traverse City was shutout 3-0 in their lone game last weekend against the Michigan Warriors. It marked the third time this season that Traverse City had been shutout. Despite the loss, the North Stars remain in a tie with Motor City for the fourth and final playoff spot with 49 points. The North Stars outshot the Warriors 33-16 in the game. At the trading deadline, the North Stars acquired goaltender Steven Bolton from the Amarillo Bulls in exchange for defenseman Alex Wiese. Wiese had eight points in 31 games with Traverse City, while Bolton comes to the North Stars after playing for both the New Mexico Mustangs and Amarillo Bulls this season in the NAHL. The North Stars have one of their biggest series of the year this weekend as they host the second-place Janesville Jets for three straight games beginning Friday.