Mid-season report: North Division
Looking at the top of the North Division, fans may be surprised with who they see. After all, the Port Huron Fighting Falcons (21-11-2, 44 points) won a league-low six games a season ago. However, it became apparent very quickly that last year was in the review mirror. At the Showcase, the Falcons went 3-0-1 with wins over Alexandria, Topeka and New Mexico and a shootout loss to Fairbanks. After going 9-3-0 in November, Port Huron moved into 1st place and comfortably remain there, seven points ahead of their closest competitor. Besides the obvious improvement in the team and the masterful coaching job done by Bill Warren, the Fighting Falcons have a few key things going for them. First, their wins come in bunches. Meaning, when they win, another win typically follows. Seven times this season, the Fighting Falcons have won at least two games in a row. Another key factor has been team consistency. Case in point, their three leading point getters Kody Polin, Mike Moroso and Alex Globke all have 23 points, but 8th on that list and just five points back is Easton Powers. It means that the Fighting Falcons are getting scoring contributions from everywhere. Nolan Valeau has been a great addition along the blueline after coming from New Mexico, but the defense is bolstered by the two-headed goaltending monster of Peter Megariotis and Max Milosek. Both have an almost identical save percentage of over 91% and both are proving they can be #1 goalies in the NAHL. With that kind of depth and goaltending, it is no wonder the Fighting Falcons are where they are. The players have to remain grounded and keep their eyes on the prize. The playoffs are on the horizon and if the Falcons can stick to basics there is plenty of reason to believe they could very well represent the North at the Robertson Cup.
The Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings (18-12-1, 37 points) have made their second coming to the NAHL one that is starting to resemble their Robertson Cup Championship teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The K-Wings won nine of their first 12 games and spent some time in 1st place in the North. Since that time, Kalamazoo has stayed six games over .500 heading into the break and sit firmly in 2nd place. After losing leading scorer Chad McDonald, 18-year-old forward Robbie Payne has emerged as one of the best young prospects in the league with his first half performance. Payne leads the K-Wings in points with 36 and is tied for 4th in goals in the NAHL with 20. Third year NAHL forward Andrew Graves is close to putting up better numbers than his 44-point season a year ago with Motor City. Kyle Gattelero is second on the team in game-winning goals and defensemen Anthony Appleyard, Brett Beauvais and Chris Leone provide some valuable experience along the blueline, who all can also provide some offense. Like the Falcons above them, the goaltending from Alex Okicki and Ken MacLean have been by committee. Okicki has put up the better numbers, but MacLean also has shown flashes of brilliance. With 16 of their remaining 29 games at home in the second half, the K-Wings could challenge the Falcons for the top spot in the division.
No team has had a bigger roller-coaster ride the first half of the season than the Michigan Warriors (15-15-3, 33 points). After coming off a memorable run to the Robertson Cup final and falling just minutes short of the title, the team had to rebuild with many of last year’s key components gone. However, after the first 13 games of the season, the Warriors had everyone thinking they were headed back to the Robertson Cup, posting a 10-2-1 record. The Warriors came crashing down in late October and November, losing 14 of their next 15 games, before winning four of the next five heading into the break. Through it all, the Warriors may have found a league MVP candidate in AJ White. The second-year forward has already surpassed last year’s point total and ranks tied for 2nd in the NAHL with 21 goals. He is 4th in the league in shooting percentage, meaning 30% of the time he fires a shots on goal, it goes in. Forwards Martin Gruse and Chris Eckler are two of the best two-way forwards on the roster and goaltender Brach Tiller has played the most minutes of any goalie in the league. However, the Warriors need some more contribution from their blueliners. Even though Michigan ranks dead last with just over 10 penalty minutes per game, their power play and penalty kill haven’t been up to par. The Warriors may just need some more time to learn and develop, especially on the blueline, but if they have a second half like they did last season, there is reason to believe another run to the cup could be a possibility.
The North Division and the rest of the NAHL for that matter are still trying to figure out the Traverse City North Stars (14-7-4, 32 points), who sit in 4th place in the North. That is because the North Stars have played a league low 25 regular season games up to this point in the season. Traverse City only has seven regulation losses thus far, which is 6th best in the league. Traverse City is a defense first team. They don’t allow much and with goaltender Kyle Laslo ranking in the top 10 in wins, minutes played and goals against average, the North Stars have their go-to goalie. In order to challenge for the top spot in the North, which is still a great possibility given the number of games remaining, the North Stars will need to figure out a way to get more offensive production, particularly from their defensemen. Will Badner leads the team in scoring with just 18 points at the break. Last season’s leader Tim Opie, finished with 60, so there is a long way to go to match the offensive numbers. Sean Murphy is a player who comes to mind that could fit that bill. Murphy is the only player on the North Stars roster who is averaging a point per game and has the distinction of having the best shooting percentage in the NAHL. Jared Van Wormer has been hot of late, but they key to the second half of the season will be winning the games in hand the North Stars have on the rest of the division. If defensemen like Zack Dorer, Robert Weiner and Chris Leibinger can maintain their defense, while increasing their offensive output, the Traverse City has a very good chance of catching all three teams that currently sit above them in the standings.
Despite being in last place in the North Division, the Jamestown Ironmen (11-18-2, 24 points) still maintain a record that is keeping them in the playoff conversation. However, two things have to happen in the second half to make Jamestown’s playoff dreams a reality. First, they have to start winning consistently on the road. Jamestown is 8-6-1 at home, but just 3-12-1 on away from the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena. Second, the Ironmen are going to have to find a way to beat Traverse City. Of their remaining 29 games, 12 are against the North Stars. Forwards Anthony Coles and Jeff McFarland have been the two most consistent scorers this season. Second year defenseman Wes Elrod ranks tied for 4th in the NAHL with eight goals by a defenseman. Aaron Scheppelman also is adding depth and scoring on the blueline and Jake Pollock adds size and toughness up front since being acquired from Kenai River earlier in the season. What the Ironmen can’t complain about has been the play of goaltenders Joe Ballmer and Joe Gladnick. Despite having just a 1-6-0 record, Glanick’s save percentage is close to 93% and Ballmer is in the top eight in minutes played with a save percentage at 91.3%. If the Ironmen can win on the road and get one of the team’s above them to falter, then the playoffs are still a consideration for Jamestown this season.
Next up in the NAHL mid-season reports: The South Division