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Amid the best season in the program’s four-year history, the Traverse City North Stars continue to pile up the wins, locking down two more last weekend over the Marquette Rangers to extend their winning streak to four games.
“Anytime you can take two from an divisional opponent, I think it's big,” said North Stars head coach Anthony Palumbo, whose team improved to 22-9-5 on the season. “Our division is so tight right now that any win at this time of the year is big.
“That and we have a long stretch of road games coming up, so it was important to take care of business at home last weekend.”
Traverse City opened with a 3-1 triumph on Friday. Kyle Bonis connected for two goals, including the game-winner, with Sean Burke supplying the third North Stars marker. Between the pipes, C.J. Motte turned back 23 shots.
Motte made all 19 saves the next night as Traverse City blanked the Rangers, 2-0. Bonis struck for the game-winning goal shorthanded, and Josh Miller added the insurance marker.
“Our success lately has come as a result of improved team play,” said Palumbo. “We’re not trying to do too much individually, but trusting each other to do our jobs. Because of that, I think we’re getting contributions from everyone on the team which ultimately has led to success for us.”
Bonis continues to solidify himself as one of the league’s premier players. With his three goals against the Rangers, the Lindsay, Ontario, native who turns 20 next month now ranks tied for eighth in league scoring with 41 points.
“On top of being a natural goal-scorer, Kyle continues to work so hard and is being rewarded,” Palumbo said. “He’s scored some big goals for us this year and last weekend was no different.”
A Top Prospects Tournament participant, Bonis should be able to parlay this season’s success into a fruitful career at a top Division I college, according to Palumbo.
“Kyle is a kid who’s getting interest and he can play at the next level,” the coach said of the second-year forward. “He’s scored at every level he’s played at I think he’ll continue to score for whichever program gives him the opportunity.”
At the other end of the ice, Motte has been nothing short of superb. The 17-year-old from St. Clair, Mich., has won his last four starts allowing only four goals against along the way.
“C.J. had a great weekend and he’s been good since he got back from Christmas break,” said Palumbo. “He’s very focused right now and playing with a lot of confidence.
“Our goaltending has been very good the last eight games, which includes good efforts from Brandon Stephenson. That always makes you a better hockey club.”
Defensively, Phil Wendecker continues to elevate his game. The second-year 20-year-old from Westland, Mich., has taken charge of the North Stars’ blue line, much to the delight of Palumbo.
“He’s really stepped up for us the last month,” said the coach. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s become a leader for us on our defense corps. He’s playing all-star caliber hockey right now.”
The North Stars, who set an organizational record for wins last season with 23, are just one shy of matching that mark this year. Despite the success, the club won’t be satisfied until a postseason berth is solidified.
“We really aren’t concentrating on our win total as much as we’re trying to make the playoffs,” said the coach. “Even though we set a record (for wins) last season, that obviously wasn’t enough to make the playoffs.
“The goal is to finish strong and maintain our place in the postseason. The division is just too tight to concentrate on anything else, but I think when we play well, we can be a very tough team to beat.”
And that means showing up for a full 60 minutes, night in and night out.
“We take time off during games and it hurts us,” Palumbo admitted. “We need to find a way to come out a play hard for a complete game.”
The homestretch will be anything but a walk in the park for Palumbo and his charges. After hosting Motor City for a two-game set this weekend, the North Stars play 16 of their final 20 games away from TC’s Centre Ice Arena.
“We’re very much aware that we’ll be on the road a lot in February and March,” said Palumbo, whose team holds a 6-4-3 road mark to date. “The focus continues to be on playing a solid team game and understanding that when we face adversity, we must face it and overcome it together.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Thomas Erlacher, who started the season in Wichita Falls, connected for a goal and three assists in the Avalanche's 6-5 win over Kenai River on Saturday.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Zach Lewis tallied two goals as the Thunder dropped a pair of games last weekend. The Illinois product now has points in his last four contests (three goals, assist).
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Texas native Kyle Clement recorded a hat trick in the Blizzard’s 6-4 loss to Owatonna on Friday.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Sam Cheraso and Tyler Pilmore each recorded a goal and two assists in a pair of losses to the U.S. Under-17 Team.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: In his first weekend with the team, defenseman Alex Gerke recorded a goal and five assists as the Bobcats skated to three victories. “Alex adds a whole new element our club,” said head coach Byron Pool of the University of Connecticut recruit who was acquired in a trade with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm. “He’s the offensive-defenseman every team needs to quarterback the power play.”
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: University of Nebraska-Omaha-bound Andrew McCabe rang up a pair of goals in the Ice Dogs’ 5-3 loss to Topeka on Friday.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Ryan Lemke added two his team-leading point totals with a goal and four assists in a pair of losses to Alaska.
MAHONING VALLEY PHANTOMS: Cole Schneider registered four goals as the Phantoms skated a 2-1 record. “It felt pretty good to come away from a tough weekend with four goals, but I give a lot of credit to my linemates out there for helping to set me up, too,” he said.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: University of Connecticut recruit James Gallagher struck for the Rangers’ only goal last weekend in two losses to Traverse City.
MOTOR CITY MACHINE: Second-year defenseman Trevor John, from Grosse Pointe, Mich., has committed to Tufts University (NESCAC) for next season.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: Outlaws players will use purple sticks throughout Friday night’s home game against Springfield. A live auction will follow with proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: John Kruse registered five assists as the Express finished the weekend with a 1-1 mark. He now has points in his last six games (two goals, 10 assists).
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Ukrainian defenseman Denys Petrukhno connected for a goal and three assists as the Jr. Blues dropped a pair of games to St. Louis.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Colorado College recruit Andrew Hamburg tallied two goals, including the game-winner, in the Bandits’ 4-2 win over Springfield on Friday.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Lyle Rocker backstopped the RoadRunners to a pair of wins over Fairbanks, turning aside 43 of 47 shots and all five in the shootout in Saturday’s 2-1 victory. “Lyle’s numbers speak for themselves,” said head coach Scott Langer. “He consistently finds a way to win hockey games.”
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Head coach Anthony Palumbo was impressed with his team’s effort in its two-game sweep over Marquette. “It was our most solid and consistent weekend in a great while,” he said.
TEAM USA: Jason Zucker recorded a hat trick in the U.S. Under-17 Team’s 6-4 win over Alpena on Friday.
WENATCHEE WILD: Corbin Brown, from Las Vegas, assisted on Duncan McKellar’s goal and netted the game-winning marker in the shootout as the Wild downed Wichita Falls on Saturday, 2-1.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Goaltender Phillip Graveline stopped all 19 shots in the Wildcats’ 4-0 triumph over Wenatchee on Friday, marking his first shutout of the season.