Diggers secure playoff berth
By Tom Williams
Mahoning Valley’s 5-2 loss to Alpena means a lot of help is needed to finish first.
BOARDMAN — After Thursday’s 6-2 romp over Alpena at the Chevrolet Centre, the last thing that the Mahoning Valley Phantoms expected to do on Friday was work on overcoming two-goal deficits.
But sterling play from IceDiggers goaltender Nick Graves, the netminder that the Phantoms had shelled one day before with five goals on 11 shots, baffled the Phantoms’ pursuit for home-ice advantage throughout the North American Hockey League’s North Division playoffs.
Graves stopped 29 shots while Jon Puskar scored goals in the second and third periods to lead the desperate IceDiggers to a 5-2 win at the Ice Zone that gives them a playoff berth.
“They were in a do-or-die situation and I give them all the credit in the world,” Phantoms assistant coach Curtis Carr said. “They played hard and they beat us.”
The win, combined with Marquette’s 3-0 loss to Traverse City gave the IceDiggers fourth place and the division’s final playoff berth.
”It’s really nice to know we have a spot in the playoffs and we can play hockey a little longer,” said Graves, who made 11 saves in the third period.
Alpena coach Jack Fritsche blamed Thursday’s loss on early goals “on a couple of bad reads. We hung [Graves] out to dry last night, giving up 2-on-0 and 2-on-1s.
““What a huge night for us,” Fritsche said of the rebound. “We’ve been playing so well, with a great sense of desperation lately.”
The Phantoms (36-17-5, 77 points) have completed the regular season and remain in first place, two points ahead of the U.S. National Team (35-16-5, 75).
However, Team USA has two games to play — tonight against last-place Motor City Machine (11-44-2, 24) and Sunday against the IceDiggers (27-24-6, 60).
Because Team USA controls the tiebreaker, the Phantoms can finish first only if the Nationals lose twice and one must be in regulation.
“It’s pretty frustrating right now, knowing that we let this one slip away,” Carr said. “We’ll let the boys think about this one for a little bit, then we’ll refocus on the playoffs.”
This much is certain — the Phantoms will open the NAHL playoffs on April 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chevrolet Centre. The opponent either will be Alpena if the Phantoms win the division or Traverse City (34-17-6, 74) if they finish in second place.
Game two of the best-of-five series will be played on April 5 at 3 p.m. at the Chevrolet Centre.
Three minutes into the second period, the Phantoms took the lead when Cole Schneider’s bad-angle shot from along the boards bounced off Graves’ pads and trickled into the net.
This time, the IceDiggers didn’t collapse.
“We’re trying to not give up quality scoring chances and guys were blocking shots,” Fritsche said.
Ten minutes later, the game was tied after Ryan Timar stole a Phantoms’ clearing attempt and passed to a wide-open Erik Peterson whose shot beat Phantoms goaltender Jordan Tibbetts.
Late in the period, Puskar put the IceDiggers ahead with an unassisted goal. The lead grew to 3-1 early in the third period when Tyler Pilmore scored.
But the Phantoms’ David Chaney answered that tally with a power-play goal set up by Nick Kenney and Nick Shkreli.
With the Phantoms pressing, Alpena’s Jay Camper stole the puck and sprung Puskar on another breakaway. His backhand shot into the net gave the Ice Diggers a 4-2 lead.