If there is one division providing plenty of drama in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), it’s the North. And, right in the middle and thick of things are the Janesville Jets.
A couple of weeks ago, the Jets were comfortably in second place. However, the recent hot play of St. Louis, Traverse City and Michigan have made the Jets turn on, well… the jets.
“It’s one of the craziest races I have seen in a long time,” said reigning NAHL Coach of the Year Dane Litke, the Jets’ head coach. “At this point, we just want to get in the playoffs so some wins down the stretch would be very important.”
Despite going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, the Jets have had their hands full the past couple of weekends from an unlikely opponent, the Port Huron Fighting Falcons. Earlier in the season, a game against the Falcons would have likely netted a sure win. However, the Jets had to wait until the last two weeks for their first game against the much-improved Fighting Falcons and Port Huron gave Janesville all they could handle.
Janesville, which is the league’s best home team, squeezed out a couple of wins at home two weeks ago, 2-0 and 4-3, over the Fighting Falcons. A weekend later, the Jets traveled to Port Huron and found the games even tougher. On Friday night, the Jets fell 3-1. On Saturday, the Jets were taken to overtime and a shootout by the Falcons, where ultimately the Jets triumphed, 3-2.
“I have to give Port Huron and their coaching staff a lot of credit. Those players play hard and teams in our division are now having to play their best game against them because points are no longer a guarantee,” said Litke.
For the majority of the season, the Jets have been led by their older, veteran players. Players like leading scorer Ross Mauerman, Connor McBride, Derek and Larkin Jacobson (University of Denver), Alex Brooks and goaltender David Jacobson.
Despite winning the NAHL Coach of the Year award with last year’s group of players, Litke says he has enjoyed this year’s group that much more.
“I really like this year’s group. They’re a little easier to work with, they bought into the systems quicker and the chemistry in the locker room is very good,” said Litke. “It’s one of the reasons why we’ve had success. I worked harder last year, but there are better pieces this year, so less changes for me to make and adjust to.”
The Jets need a combination of just three points or two regulation losses by Motor City to clinch a playoff spot. However, with their remaining schedule, the Jets will be put to the test.
This weekend, the Jets travel across Wisconsin to take on in-state rival the Coulee Chill, which itself is battling for first place in the Central. That’s followed by three games next weekend on the road in Flint against the Michigan Warriors, the team right behind the Jets in the North Division.
“I like our remaining schedule because the games mean a lot. They’re against playoff-bound teams and will truly have a playoff atmosphere, which is what I prefer. Hopefully, the guys come out and play hard, but they’re going to have to be sharp and play well.”
NORTH DIVSION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: It was a difficult weekend for the Hitmen, as it ran into the Michigan Warriors who were hungry for some wins to secure a playoff spot. Chicago dropped two games in Flint against the Warriors last weekend by a combined 11-1 margin. On Friday night, the Hitmen was blanked 5-0 by the Warriors in a game that featured just four minor penalties. Joey Haydock managed five of the 24 Hitmen shots. In net, Brennan Knoblock started out slow, but got better as the game wore on making 40 saves on the affair. On Saturday, the Hitmen fell 6-1 to the Warriors. Chicago would get its only goal on a 5-on-3 advantage as Haydock scored his second of the season, from Chad Spiller and Sam Pinsler. The Hitmen will have a chance at redemption against the Warriors as its hosts Michigan for two games this weekend.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: The Warriors gave their playoff hopes a huge shot in the arm last week with three wins in their three games and, with six games to go, sit five points ahead of Motor City for the fourth and final playoff spot. On Thursday, Andrew Kolb scored twice and Robert Tadazak made 37 saves in a 2-0 shutout win over Port Huron. On Friday, it was another shutout for Tadazak, who stopped all 24 Hitmen shots and Kolb had four points, including two more goals in the win. Ryan Green and Kevin Gibson each had multi-point nights. On Saturday, Tadazak’s shutout streak was snapped, but Green had two goals and an assist in a convincing 6-1 win over the Hitmen. Chris Eckler added two assists in the win. The Warriors, who sit comfortably in the fourth and final playoff spot, face a return engagement against the Hitmen, this time in Chicago beginning on Friday as they look to lock up a playoff spot.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: The Metal Jackets playoff hopes hit a snag after they dropped two of three games last weekend in Springfield. On Friday, Billy Balent scored the lone goal in a tough 7-1 loss. On Saturday, the Metal Jackets were deadlocked with the Jr. Blues midway through the third period, but three Springfield goals in the final eight minutes of the game gave them a 5-2 win over Motor City. Andrew Graves scored both goals for the Metal Jackets and goaltender Jimmy Hamby stopped 44 of 48 shots in goal. On Sunday, the Metal Jackets rebounded for a 4-2 win, which included three third-period goals. Graves and Andrew Coles each had a goal and an assist in the win. Cody Wydo had an assist to bring his league-leading point total to 86 for the season. Moving forward into this weekend, the Metal Jackets have the benefit of playing their final six games at home, including three this weekend against Traverse City.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: The NAHL has realized that the Port Huron Fighting Falcons are now for real. On Thursday, the Fighting Falcons stayed right with the Michigan Warriors, ultimately losing, 2-0, and outshot the Warriors 37-35. Goaltender Peter Megariotis made 33 saves in the loss. A night later, the Fighting Falcons got shorthanded goals from Logan Lemirande and Adam Frank, and an insurance goal from Maxwell Reavis to defeat the visiting Janesville Jets, 3-1. Megariotis was again stellar in goal, stopping 29 of 30 shots for the win. The win was the first of the season for Port Huron over the Jets. On Sunday, the Fighting Falcons earned another point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Jets in a game that featured just two combined minor penalties between the two teams. Lemirande and James Rudi Pino scored for the Fighting Falcons. With seventh-place Chicago in its sights, Port Huron makes a trip to Springfield for three games this weekend beginning Friday night.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Despite taking two of three home games against the Motor City Metal Jackets last weekend, the Jr. Blues were eliminated from playoff contention. On Friday, the Jr. Blues' offense came alive in a 7-1 win. Josef Pontasch had four points and Chris Sitler and Ben Kramer had three points apiece in the Jr. Blues most lopsided win of the season. On Saturday, Mike Williams and Kyle Cook each had three points and goaltender Andrew Martin stopped 36 of 38 shots for his 18th win of the season. On Sunday, Martin stopped a career and season-high 61 shots, but it would not be enough in a 4-2 loss. Ethan Nauman and Kevin Walters scored for the Jr. Blues in the loss. Springfield plays its final home games of the season this upcoming weekend in a three-game set against the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Last weekend was bittersweet for the Bandits. St. Louis did clinch a playoff spot over the weekend, but was defeated in two of three home games against the Traverse City North Stars, who sit just five points behind the Bandits for first place in the North Division. On Friday, the Bandits were blanked by the North Stars, 3-0. Goaltender Tom Comunale came in relief and stopped all 16 shots he faced. One night later, the Bandits exacted revenge with a 3-1 win. Chris Ciotti had two goals and linemate Joe Kalisz had two assists, while Comunale made 25 saves in the win. On Sunday, the Bandits got a goal from Kalisz, but the North Stars scored the game-winning goal with less than two minutes remaining in a 2-1 loss. Comunale picked up the loss making 24 saves. The schedule doesn’t get easier for the Bandits, who will now travel to Topeka to face the league’s top team in the RoadRunners for two games.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The North Stars continued their march up the North Division standings last weekend, winning two of three games at division-leading St. Louis with sights on first place becoming a definite possibility for Traverse City. The North Stars have allowed just 11 goals in their last eight games. A big reason is goaltender Steve Bolton, who shutout St. Louis on Friday night with 26 saves. Michael Szmatula had the game-winning goal and James Albrecht and Kelin Ainsworth also scored for Traverse City. Alex Shields scored the only goal a night later in a 3-1 loss, but on Sunday, the North Stars got a goal with just 1:36 remaining from Eric Rivard to defeat the Bandits 2-1. Goaltender Tyler Marble made his case for the starting job, stopping 36 of 37 shots. The North Stars will travel to Motor City this weekend for three games. Just one win over the Metal Jackets will get the North Stars into the playoffs for a third straight season.