You’d think a team with just six wins heading into the final weekend of the regular season would be down and out, and have nothing left to play for.
However, nothing could be further from the truth for the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.
Heading into their final weekend of the regular season, which will be a home-and-home series with playoff-bound Traverse City, the Fighting Falcons’ confidence is high and already spilling over into the summer and next season.
The change in culture came as the calendar turned over to 2011 and Bill Warren took over as head coach. Prior to that date, the Fighting Falcons had a total of three points in 28 games. Since, Port Huron has finished the second half of the season with 14 points in the same amount of games.
It’s a tribute to Warren, general manager Marty Haddad and the players that finished out the season with the club.
“We realized the culture and mentality needed to change,” said Warren. “Right away, we knew that with just one win, the playoffs were no longer a reality, so we knew we needed to get younger to get ready for next season.
“Our focus since that point has been to get a nucleus of players that could be back with the team next season and get them as much experience as possible playing in the North American Hockey League (NAHL),” Warren added. “Since that time, they’ve become a team that’s just a few pieces away from being able to win every time we step on the ice and being a team that can compete for the postseason.”
Case in point: a string of recent games in January when the team took points in four of five games and again in February and March when they took points in four of seven games.
The nucleus that Warren speaks of revolves around players like Max Reavis, Mitch Sand, Nicholas Sierra and Logan Lemirande, who are all young enough to return to the team next season. Of the four, Lemirande has been the only one to endure the full season with the Fighting Falcons. The other three were additions in the second half of the season that have bought into Warren’s systems and philosophy and have made their team better for it.
“I think those guys are going to be the core group of veterans for next season that will be our leaders, so it’s important for them to get as much experience as possible,” said Warren.
Warren also points out that goaltenders Tyler Last and Peter Megariotis have been strong in goal and could be players that help backstop the Fighting Falcons next season.
“No doubt, they’ve seen plenty of shots, but, as the season has gone along, our goaltending and defense have been our strong points. Now, we have to figure out a way to put the puck in the net on a consistent basis.”
Becoming better offensively will be top priority in the offseason for Warren and the Fighting Falcons, who plan to use their tenders and draft picks to primarily focus on the lack of scoring.
“We need guys who can put the puck in net,” said Warren. “We were last in goals scored in the NAHL, so it’s an area of concern and will be addressed in the offseason.”
Armed with the knowledge of what it takes to compete in the North Division, the Fighting Falcons are expecting big things next season.
“Playing teams like St. Louis, Traverse City, Janesville and the others, we see and understand what pieces we have to put together in order to compete and beat them,” Warren said. “It’s our goal next season to make playoffs and grow the team’s popularity in the area.
“We want Port Huron to be in the NAHL for long time and be successful.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The Hitmen ran into a hot Michigan Warriors team last weekend, and was subsequently swept on Friday and Saturday at home. The losses pushed the Hitmen’s losing skid to eight straight games and Chicago has now lost 21 out of its last 22 contests. On Friday, Chicago managed to keep things close in the first period with goals from Sam Pinsler and Gabe Gervais, but Warriors broke things open in the third period on their way to a 6-2 win. Goaltender Brennan Knoblock came in relief of Reid Mimmack and stopped 32 of 35 shots. The next night was even tougher for the Hitmen as it was blanked by the Warriors, 6-0. Chicago managed just 23 shots, five of which came off the stick of Austin Cihak. The Hitmen finish its inaugural regular season in the NAHL with two final games this weekend at division-champion St. Louis.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets secured a playoff berth in the North Division, despite only taking one of four points last weekend at in-state rival Coulee Region. On Friday, the Jets jumped out to a 2-0 lead with goals from Truman Landowski and Connor McBride, only to see the Chill push the game into overtime and then a shootout, where the Chill edged the Jets to win the game 3-2. A night later, the Jets outshot the Chill 43-31, but fell 5-2. Again, the Jets would dominate the first period, jumping out to a 2-0 lead with goals from John Olen and Ross Mauermann, only to see the Chill scored the final five goals of the game for the weekend sweep. After winning seven straight games in January and February, goaltender David Jacobson has won just two out of his last eight starts. The Jets will travel to Michigan for the final three games of the regular season as the two teams jockey for playoff seeding.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: With a pair of wins last weekend at home over the Chicago Hitmen and a win on Wednesday, the Michigan Warriors secured the league’s final playoff berth in just their first season. On Friday, Ryan Green had a goal and two assists in a 6-2 win over Chicago. Green is averaging more than a point per game since joining the Warriors and is riding a five-game scoring streak. Andrew Kolb, Chris Eckler and Robert Mantha all had multi-point nights. On Saturday, Robert Tadazak posted his league-best ninth shutout of the season in a 6-0 win. Scott Henegar and Brad Chapman had multi-point nights in the win. In Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Port Huron, Green scored the game-winning goal and Tadazak made 27 saves in the win that clinched a playoff spot for the Warriors. Michigan finishes its regular season with three home games against Janesville, with both teams tied in the North Division standings.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Motor City’s playoff chances suffered a huge blow last week as it dropped three of four games to the second-place Traverse City North Stars. Michigan’s win on Wednesday ended any playoff hopes for the Metal Jackets, who fell just short of the post-season despite winning over 30 games this season. Every other team in the NAHL who had at least 30 wins this season made the playoffs. During the Metal Jackets’ lone 6-1 win on Saturday, the NAHL’s leading scorer Cody Wydo had a goal and an assist, as did John Scorcia and Petrus Sipilia. Goaltender Joey Ballmer stopped 21 of 22 shots for the win. In the other games, the Metal Jackets lost the three games by a combined four goals. In Friday’s 5-4 loss in overtime, Andrew Graves led the way with three points. Motor City will finish its season hosting three games against the Springfield Jr. Blues.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: It was a three-game sweep for the Springfield Jr. Blues as they topped the visiting Port Huron Fighting Falcons in a three-game home set. Forward and leading-scorer Ethan Nauman struck for four goals and three assists during the series, earning his way to being named the North Division Player of the Week. On Friday, Nauman recorded a goal and an assist in a 4-3 victory. The next night, the 19-year-old tallied the game-winning goal and an assist as the Jr. Blues doubled up the Fighting Falcons, 4-2. Nauman put forth a two-goal, one-assist effort in a 7-2 triumph on Sunday. The Jr. Blues have also announced that Ryan Hardy has been named the team's new head coach. He replaces interim head coach Joe Dibble, who will remain with the team as the associate head coach. The Jr. Blues finish their season this weekend with a three-game set at Motor City.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: The North Division champion Bandits proved they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with during the Robertson Cup Playoffs with an impressive sweep of South Division Champion Topeka in Topeka last weekend. On Friday, the Bandits jumped out to a 3-0 lead with goals from Isak Quakenbush, Chris Ciotti and Joe Kalisz and held on for a 3-2 win. On Saturday, the Bandits offense was very efficient, scoring five goals on just 15 shots in a 5-1 win. Stephen Bopp had two goals and Evan Stibbard and Brad Smith had multi-point games in the win. Goaltender Tom Comunale netted first star honors, stopping 29 of 30 RoadRunners shots in the win, which was the 39th of the season for St. Louis. The Bandits finish the regular season with two home games against Chicago and will likely face Janesville or Michigan in the North Division semifinals beginning the first weekend in April.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The North Stars are just one point away from securing home-ice advantage in the North Division semifinals thanks to their three wins in four games last week over Motor City. On Tuesday, Tim Opie scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win. On Friday, Opie struck again, this time in overtime for a 5-4 win over the Metal Jackets. Curtis Heinz and Sean Murphy each had two assists in the win. On Saturday, the North Stars fell 6-1 with Connor Schmidt scoring the lone goal, but Traverse City rebounded on Sunday with a 4-2 win as Jared Van Wormer scored twice and goaltender Steve Bolton made 32 saves. Traverse City finishes the regular season with a home-and-home series against the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.