Read the full NAHL Weekly Release.
It might be the dead of winter, but few teams are hotter right now than the Alaska Avalanche, which has rolled off five wins in a row, including two last weekend against the Wichita Falls Wildcats.
“Those were important points for us,” said Avalanche head coach Dave Boitz, whose team improved to 16-18-1 on the season. “And to get them against a big, strong team from the South Division is a big confidence-booster for our young team.”
Logan Rounds (game-winner), Thomas Erlacher and Robb Haider each rang up a goal and an assist as the Avs opened with a 5-3 victory on Friday. Along with turning aside 31 shots, goaltender Nate Pellegrino added two assists in the win.
The next night, Sean McNeely, Dan Hildbrandt (game-winner) and Haider connected for goals as Alaska dropped the Wildcats, 3-1. Pellegrino made 36 saves to pick up his second win of the weekend.
The victories also helped vault the Avalanche back into the race for second place in the West Division with Wenatchee - Alaska sits three points behind the Wild having played one more game - while distancing itself from Kenai River, which has five fewer points than Alaska having played four more games.
“Our special teams are much improved and we have a balanced attack where we’re consistently rolling four lines,” said Boitz, whose team went 7-3 in January. “We’ve also been getting better goaltending than the weeks leading up to the (holiday) break.”
And the Avs have Pellegrino to thank. With his two wins last weekend, the 20-year-old from Woodlyn, Pa., who started his NAHL career with Alaska back in 2006-07 has now won his last four starts.
“He has the ability to be as good as anyone, and he’s working on being prepared mentally everyday in practice and in games,” said Boitz. “If he stays consistent, he could be one of the top goalies in the league. He knows that, so the ball is in his court.”
Haider has also come around to become a big piece of the Avs’ puzzle. A highly regarded first-year forward who hit some bumps in the road early on, the Anchorage product has risen to the challenge, posting four goals and three assists in his last four games.
“He’s responded like a champ,” said Boitz, who also credits Haider’s linemates, Rounds and Justin Giles. “He’s better in all areas of the ice than I would’ve ever imagined and now he’s becoming one of the biggest offensive threats we have.
“We’ve had different guys get hot at different times and right now, although we don't have that one guy who’s going to carry us offensively, we have a number of guys who can score at any time.”
On the defensive side of the puck, McNeely, from Minnesota, and Jason Cohen, from Anchorage, have drawn rave reviews. Both 20-year-old Top Prospects Tournament participants continue to log a ton of minutes in key situations and are getting significant college interest, according to Boitz.
“They’re two of the top defensemen in our division, if not the top two,” said the coach. “These guys are definitely Division I players. Hopefully, something will develop for them.”
Forward Kyle Pichler, who led the West Division in scoring at last month’s Top Prospects event, has been another mainstay in the Avs’ lineup. The 19-year-old from Anchorage has 11 goals for 21 points after 32 games this season.
“He’s been fantastic for us,” said Boitz. “He’s picked up some big goals and is playing huge in every situation for us.”
Alaska has also gotten a shot in the arm with the recent acquisitions of Erlacher from Wichita Falls and Cory Belisle from North Iowa, with the forward pair bringing some welcomed offense to the table.
“Thomas was exactly what we needed: some size and strength upfront,” said Boitz. “He’s been putting up points pretty consistently.
“Cory has also been good offensively and, if he learns to compete hard everyday, he could be a big-time player in this league. He has tremendous skill and vision and is terrific around the net.”
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Avs to date. After opening the season on a high – the team was 8-2 after its first 10 games - the club fell on hard times due to a few unexpected departures, including a couple of critical ones between the pipes.
“But we’ve seemed to have found our mojo again, so hopefully we can stay on track,” said Boitz.
And that includes making a run at a West Division championship, something Boitz believes is still in the cards given his team’s recent resurgence.
“I think all things are possible because of what a outstanding group of young men I’ve been blessed with,” said the coach, in his first season behind the Avs’ bench. “They really have given me new life and energy for coaching just because of their never-quit attitude. They truly are a special group and, no matter what happens, it’s been enjoyable for me to have the opportunity to work with these guys.”
With no players committed to Division I schools as of yet, Boitz says it’s just a matter of time before the Avs’ college list takes shape. Continued team success certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause.
“Our guys are just staying focused on the team and hopefully they’ll get the well-deserved attention they need for college,” said Boitz. “(Avalanche director of hockey operations and player development) Keith Morris and I have been working the phones pretty hard and we’ve had some great feedback and definite interest.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: The Avalanche has come from behind in more than half of its 16 wins this season. “They don’t quit,” head coach Dave Boitz said of his team.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Derek Docken, Jimmie Perkins and Niko Kapetanovic scored for the Thunder as it dropped a pair of games to Bismarck.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Jerry Freismuth tallied three goals and three assists as the Blizzard split a two-game set with Owatonna.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Mike DeGrazia, Erik Peterson and Andy Yarber connected for goals in the IceDiggers’ two losses to Mahoning Valley.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Defenseman John Avino tallied a goal and two assists, along with a plus-5 rating, as the Bobcats won two games over Albert Lea. “John is rock solid in his own end and has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen,” said head coach Byron Pool. “He’s a true competitor in every sense of the word.”
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: California-born Michael Juola put away three goals and an assist as the Ice Dogs went 2-1 against Wenatchee.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Idle last weekend, the Brown Bears host Wichita Falls for three games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
MAHONING VALLEY PHANTOMS: Garrett Bartus made 34 saves in the Phantoms’ 6-1 win over Alpena on Friday. He’s now won six of his last seven starts. “With the guys out there scoring so much, I was just able to relax and have some fun in net,” he said.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Defenseman Kevin Gravel has been added to the U.S. National Under-17 Team that will compete at the Vlad Dzurilla Under-18 Tournament in Piestany, Slovakia Feb. 5-7.
MOTOR CITY MACHINE: The Machine has acquired forward Jon Bobb from Springfield. Now in his second NAHL season, the Arizona native has committed to Army (Atlantic Hockey) for next season.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: The Outlaws first-ever “Put Cancer on Ice” weekend raised nearly $2,000. “It always means something to us when we have a chance to give back, because we’re in a position to help,” said forward Kurt Weston.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Tony McDonald potted a goal and three assists as the Express split a two-game set with Alexandria. He was also a plus-2.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: The NAHL’s leading goal-scorer, Trent Frey, put home two more in the Jr. Blues’ 6-5 loss to North Iowa on Friday. He now has 24 goals on the year.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Colorado College recruit Andrew Hamburg recorded a goal and an assist as the Bandits lost two one-goal decisions to Topeka.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Goaltender Bryce Merriam backstopped the RoadRunners to two wins over St. Louis, turning aside 33 of 37 shots. ”He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he continues to work hard to get even better,” said head coach Scott Langer. “He’s a veteran with a lot of tools and he’s definitely finding his groove.”
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Nate Urbaniak (two goals, assist) and Kyle Bonis (goal, two assists) both put together three-point weekends in the North Stars’ two-game sweep over Motor City.
TEAM USA: Matt Nieto rang up two goals and an assist as the Under-17 Team downed Marquette on Saturday, 4-3.
WENATCHEE WILD: DJ Vandercook collected two goals and two assists as the Wild went 1-2 against Fairbanks. “DJ, along with his linemates (Nick Dowd and Michael Voran), are distinguishing themselves as three of the top 1990-born players in the league,” said head coach Paul Baxter.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Brett Hartung (goal, assist), Zach Rourke (two assists) and Adam Kuhn (two assists) all fashioned two-point nights in the Wildcats’ 5-3 loss to Alaska on Friday.