When Joe Dibble took the reins of the Springfield Jr. Blues a few weeks ago, little did he know his team would respond with such promise.
After seeing some of its marquee players shipped at the NAHL trade deadline and having to get used to a new head coach, the team could have packed it in. However, the Jr. Blues have done the exact opposite.
Due to its recent on-ice success, Springfield remains in the North Division playoff hunt and, when looking at its remaining schedule, it’s easy to believe the Jr. Blues will be in the mix until the very end.
“We consider ourselves a contender and have since the start of the season,” said Dibble. “It’s an uphill battle, but we have to believe that if we play one game at a time, one series at a time, anything is still possible.”
With five teams ahead of the Jr. Blues in the North Division standings, Springfield has kept itself in the mix with wins in three of its last four games, which included a big home win last Friday against division-leading St. Louis.
“After all the trades had gone down, to get a win like that on Friday was huge for our team and for our confidence,” said Dibble. “There’s no question we can play with anyone within our division. The question is: Can we string enough wins together the last 14 games of the season to make the playoffs?”
If the Jr. Blues manage to come back and secure a playoff berth, it’ll be because of their players’ ability to fight through adversity.
“When I took over, that was my No. 1 concern - the well-being of the players,” said Dibble. “They’ve been through a lot and I can’t say enough about them as a group.”
Two of the players Dibble points out are rookies Mike Fallon and Gavin Tufte. Both are having very good seasons in their first years in the NAHL and, according to Dibble, have been the backbone of the team.
“Both have stepped up as leaders on this team,” said the coach. “They never have taken a day off. They aren’t going to quit and they make us very optimistic about our future.”
Goaltender Andrew Martin is another player who has made a difference.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without him,” said Dibble.
Martin is fifth in the NAHL in minutes played and has appeared in almost 80 percent of Springfield’s games this season, including 10 of the last 11. He’s been named the First Star in a league-high seven games this season.
Despite the fact that Springfield hosts the league’s top team (Topeka) this weekend, Dibble and the Jr. Blues remain confident they can win. The Jr. Blues have split their season series with the RoadRunners this year, going 2-2-0, and are one of only three teams to have a .500 record or better against Topeka this season.
“We’ve had some success against the RoadRunners, so there’s reason to believe that if we play them tough, physical and battle hard, we should have a good chance to be successful this weekend against them.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The losing skid for Chicago hit a season-high 10 games after the Hitmen were swept on the road last weekend by the Michigan Warriors. The Hitmen has just 10 goals in that stretch, and were shutout on Friday night, 4-0, and defeated on Saturday, 7-2. Goaltender Reid Mimmack made 42 saves on Friday night. Forward Brent Formosa scored his first goal since Dec. 11 in Saturday’s 7-2 loss, in which the Hitmen also managed to outshoot the Warriors on Saturday, 37-36. The Hitmen opens a four-game homestand this weekend beginning with two games against the Motor City Metal Jackets.
JANESVILLE JETS: After two losses on Friday and Saturday at Traverse City, the Jets managed to rebound on Sunday against the North Stars with a 3-1 win. Larkin Jacobson scored the game-winning goal on the power play in the third period and Ross Mauermann added two assists. Goaltender Tony Kujava got his first start since Jan. 29 and promptly stopped 26 of 27 shots for the win. The win kept the Jets firmly in second place in the North Division with 59 points, five points ahead of third-place Michigan. The second-place Jets face a big showdown this weekend as they open a seven-game homestand against the third-place Michigan Warriors for three games beginning on Thursday.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: The Warriors’ win streak hit five straight games as they swept the Chicago Hitmen last weekend. Forward Tyler Perpich scored the game-winning goal in Friday’s 4-0 shutout win and has a current point streak of three games. Warriors netminder Robert Tadazak had a shutout streak of over 147 minutes snapped in Saturday’s 7-2 win over Chicago, but still managed to stop a combined 54 of 56 shots over the weekend. Defenseman Kevin Gibson was named as North Player of the Week thanks to his three-point weekend performance. The Warriors’ climb up the North Division standings faces perhaps one of its toughest challenges this weekend as they travel to Janesville for three games beginning on Thursday.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: With identical 4-1 wins over the Port Huron Fighting Falcons last weekend, the Metal Jackets kept pace in the North Division playoff race. Motor City sits in a tie for the fourth and final playoff spot with Traverse City with 53 points, one point behind third-place Michigan. Cody Wydo continued his quest towards the rare 100-point mark with three points on the weekend. Goaltender Jimmy Hamby was in goal for both wins as he stopped a combined 58 of 60 shots, earning NAHL Goalie of the Week honors. The Metal Jackets continue their 11-game road swing as they travel to Chicago this weekend to take on the Hitmen in a pair of games.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: The Fighting Falcons fell in two games at home to the Motor City Metal Jackets by identical 4-1 scores on Friday and Saturday. On Friday, Ian Miller scored his first career Fighting Falcons goal to give Port Huron a 1-0 lead, but it would not be enough for the Fighting Falcons despite outshooting Motor City, 30-25. James Rudi Pino’s seven-game goal scoring streak came to an end. On Saturday, the Fighting Falcons again outshot the Metal Jackets 35-30, but managed only a goal from Travis Hill. The Fighting Falcons look to get back on the winning side of things with a home-and-home series against the Traverse City North Stars this weekend.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: The Bandits split a home-and-home series with the Springfield Jr. Blues last weekend. On Friday, Ryan Stouffer had two goals and Chris Ciotti had three assists, but it would not be enough in a 6-4 loss. The Bandits rebounded a night later at home with a 3-1 win, thanks to two goals from Brad Smith and 24 saves from Matt Green. The home crowd of 2,328 on Saturday night was the largest home crowd ever in Bandits history to see a home game at the Hardees Iceplex. The first-place Bandits have played an NAHL-high 48 regular-season games thus far and lead the North Division by a whopping 11 points. However, the Bandits have the next two weekends off from games, while their North Division foes try to play catch up. The Bandits don’t hit the ice again until March 4.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The North Stars stayed right in the heat of the North Division playoff race, winning two of three games last weekend from the second-place Janesville Jets. On Friday night, goaltender Tyler Marble made 19 saves for his third shutout of the year and Alec Shields had two assists in a 4-0 win. A night later, the stingy defense continued for the North Stars as they defeated the Jets, 3-1. Jared Van Wormer scored twice and newly acquired and Top Prospects goaltender Steven Bolton made 26 saves. On Sunday, the Jets took the final game of the three-game series with a 3-1 win. Tyler Murphy scored the lone North Stars goal. Traverse City faces a home-and-home series with Port Huron this weekend.