Fairbanks Ice Dogs (1st place, 20-9-3,43 pts.)
At the top again of the division are the defending champion Ice Dogs. It has been a season of streaky play thus far for Fairbanks, who were hampered at the start of the season by a 2-5-1 record in their first eight games. That was followed by one of the best stretches of hockey in recent memory for the Ice Dogs, who then won 13 of their next 14 games to vault to the top of the division. The Ice Dogs are loaded with talent again this year and it starts with a high-potent offense that is ranked 2nd in goals for in the NAHL. Fairbanks is averaging just under four goals a game and it starts with third-year forward and MSU-Mankato recruit Chandler Madry, who is one of the leaders in NAHL scoring. Along with Madry, four other players are also in double-digits in goals including veterans Ethan Somoza, Jacob Hetz, Hans Gorowsky and Yannick Vedel. All were key components of last year’s Robertson Cup Championship team. On top of that, the Ice Dogs boast of the league’s best defenseman in Jakob Stridsberg, but the real intrigue entering the second half is the addition of Kevin Aldridge in goal. Aldridge, the Robertson Cup MVP last season, was at Lake Superior State to start this season, but has returned to Fairbanks and now he and Patrick Munson are back in goal again. It will be interesting to see who gets the playing time because Munson has had a good season. With the playoffs being a play down once again, there is no reason to believe that if Fairbanks earns home ice for the playoffs that they aren’t once again going to be the favorite to hoist the cup yet again.
Minnesota Wilderness (2nd place, 19-7-4, 42 pts.)
After narrowly missing out on advancing to the division finals last year and losing their record-breaking goalie to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA, this season has been anything, but a rebuilding year for the Wilderness, who find themselves close to 1st place thanks in large part to a slew of new faces. The Wilderness have done it with defense, a strong start and their recent play heading into the holiday break. Minnesota jumped out to an 8-3 record, but perhaps more impressive is their recent run of 13 straight games dating back to November 8th without a regulation loss. The Wilderness are also where they are in the standings because they rank in the Top 7 in the NAHL in both goals for and goals against. Although their leading scorers (Billy Exell and Ivan Chukarov) don’t have the eye-popping totals that other teams have, contributions towards their success have come from everyone. 11 players are in double-digit scoring and three of their top seven scorers are new to the team this season. The goaltending duo of Brock Kautz and Ryan Anderson has put up some great numbers and has been by committee. The key for the Wilderness the second half of the season is to continue their run of good defense and securing the top seed so they may have home ice throughout the divisional playoffs.
Coulee Region Chill (3rd place, 18-7-4, 40 pts.)
Maybe the team that has not only snuck up on their division, but the entire NAHL as well has been the Coulee Region Chill. Like the Wilderness, the Chill are a top 7 team in both offense and defense in the NAHL and as of the holiday break, there may be not hotter team in the league. The Chill got off to a 5-2-1 start, but lost five in a row. Since then (October 25th), the Chill have posted a 13-1-2 record, which is remarkable. Leading the way is MVP candidate and goalie Adam Carlson. Not only was Carlson named the November Goalie of the Month in the NAHL, but he recently made his rags to riches dream come true with an NCAA Division I commitment to Mercyhurst earlier in December. Keep in mind that last season, the Chill missed the playoffs by a single point even though they had 31 wins. It is an anomaly that is unlikely to repeat itself this year thanks in large part to career seasons from players like Carlson, Adam Lovick, Richard Zehnal, Dominik Florian and defenseman Sean Lang. Blake Kelley has also come on as of late. The Chill will decide their own fate in the second half as they have plenty of opportunistic games against the Wilderness, as well as, a trip to Alaska to face the Ice Dogs. However, they have to be squarely in the conversation as one of the three teams who will win the division at this point.
Minnesota Magicians (4th place, 13-20-0, 26 pts.)
Despite having the second most regulation losses in the NAHL (20), the Minnesota Magicians are still in playoff position. The Magicians got off to a very good start, going 10-5 in their first 15 games. However, it was rough sledding after that which included a stretch of 10 losses in a row and a stretch of 14 losses in their last 16 games heading into the break. Yet, there the Magicians sit in 4th place and if the playoffs started today, they would be in. The Magicians have struggled this season on special teams, ranking 21st in both power play and penalty killing percentage. While they rank in the middle of the pack in goals for, they are 21st in goals allowed per game at 3.52. There have been bright spots for the Magicians like the play of defenseman Sam Becker, who leads all NAHL blueliners in assists with 23. Lukas Laub has been a great addition to the team as he leads the club in points (26) and goals (14). Kane Durment has come on as of late with seven points in the team’s last 10 games. Because they are 14 point back of 3rd place, the Magicians will likely have to duke it out with Kenai River for the 4th and final playoff spot in the Division. However, the remaining schedule is not easy and the head-to-head games against the Brown Bears are done.
Kenai River (5th place, 11-19-1, 23 pts.)
The Brown Bears enter the break not having had the season they wanted thus far, but the good news is they are far from out of the playoffs race. They are just three points back of the Minnesota Magicians and they have two games in hand. Three of Kenai River’s top six scorers are defenseman, which is more of a testament to their depth at the position with the likes of Tyler Andrews, Gustav Berglund and Ben Campbell, than the lack of production up front. Jack Gessert is one of the league’s emerging offensive stars and has 18 goals to date, which ranks tied for 2nd in the NAHL. Maurin Bouvet has been a nice addition to the team and the Brown Bears have a bright future with youngsters like Tanner Schachle and Evan Butcher. The additions of Alex Jackstadt and Zach Zulkanycz should provide some much needed scoring depth and punch for the second half of the season. The key for the Brown Bears will be performing well as they open up the second half with six straight on the road. If they can manage a decent record in that time span, 14 of the next 16 are at home in Alaska, where the team can make a move and get into playoff position.
Janesville Jets (1st place, 24-8-1, 49 pts.)
Armed with the largest division lead of any of the four division leaders, the Jets have parlayed their recent player advancement success into on-ice success as they arguably have been one of the most consistent teams in the NAHL this season. A slow start was a mere formality as the Jets have posted a 15-3-0 record in their last 18 games, which also currently includes an eight-game winning streak. On the ice, the Jets are disciplined and consistent. Their success is attributed to both their offense and defense, as they rank in the top five in the NAHL in each category. The Jets are tied for the best defense in the NAHL, allowing just 2.03 goals per game. The backbone has been a steady defense and another great find in 17-year-old goalie Matt Jurusik, who is following in the long line of successful goalies to play for Janesville. As one of the youngest goalies in the league, Jurusik leads the NAHL wins and is in the Top six in both goals against average and save percentage. Combine that with a veteran blueline consisting of solid defensemen like Alex Smith, Zach Yoder, Ian Janco and Grant Hutton, and it is no wonder the Jets are where they are. Up front, the scoring is balanced and productive. The Jets have three players already with 30 or more points in Zach Lavalle, Brandon Schultz and Evan Feno. Add to the mix talented forwards like Adam Winborg, Mitch Fossier, Dan Kucerovy, Cullen Munson and the recent return of veteran Drew Callin, and the Jets have almost no weakness. With an identical record at home, as well as, on the road and a favorable schedule the rest of the way and at the end of the regular season, and the Jets could make a run at the overall NAHL title if they keep playing the way they do.
Soo Eagles (2nd place, 18-16-1, 37 pts.)
Even though they are 12 points behind the division-leading Jets, the Eagles find themselves in solid position in the North at the midway point. The good news for head coach Bruno Bragagnolo and crew is that they have found themselves a solid group of forwards who have all consistently put up points this season. Soo’s top scorers Keegan Miller and Mitch Vanderburg are both just 18-years-old, which bodes well for the future of the Eagles. Sandis Zolmanis, Trevor Cope, Bruno Birzitis, Denver Pierce, Chase Matson and Brad Pung round out a good group of talented forwards. However, if the Eagles strength is depth at forward, that has exposed a defense and a goaltending group that needs to improve if the Eagles hope to find playoff success. The top nine scorers for the Eagles are all forwards and goalies Sean Keating and Jack Berry have both solid at times, but remain inconsistent with both having save percentages that hover right at 90% and goals against averages both above 3.00. The Eagles special teams also need to improve. The Eagles have the last-ranked power play in the NAHL at just 11.7% and their penalty kill is in the bottom third. However, the Eagles have an all-North Division schedule remaining and have yet to lose more than three straight games during any point so far this season. It remains a stretch they can catch the red-hot Jets, but if they can hold onto the #2 spot and get home ice in the 1st round of the playoffs, anything is possible in the post-season.
Keystone Ice Miners (3rd place-tie, 14-14-3, 31 pts.)
It has been a season of streaks on the ice for Keystone, who have two separate four-game winning streaks and losing streaks to their credit through the halfway point. Scoring has been a problem for the Ice Miners this season, as they rank 22nd in the NAHL in goals scored per game at just 2.42. Forward Noah Batis leads the team with 10 goals and Taylor Fernandez leads the club with 20 points. The strength Ice Miners lies in their two goalies, Alex Blankenburg and Nick Kossoff, who have both had very solid seasons. Blankenburg has a career NAHL save percentage of 92.4% and has appeared in close to two-thirds of the games. Kossoff, who recently committed to Lake Superior State, is among the NAHL leaders in save percentage at 92.7%. Defensively, the Ice Miners have two very solid and consistent players in Alex Archibald and Lucas Little, both veterans. However, after that, the production falls off. The schedule is February is going to be very tough, with games against Janesville and a two-week road trip to Alaska. If Keystone can navigate through that and take care of business in January, which is full of home games, then they have a great shot of making the playoffs and making a run thanks to the depth of their goaltending.
Michigan Warriors (3rd place-tie, 12-16-7, 31 pts.)
It is strange, but the Michigan Warriors very much mirror what the Keystone Ice Miners have done to date. While the Warriors have a Top 10 defense, they rank second to last in offensively production in the NAHL at just 2.23 goals scored per game. After starting the season 0-5, the Warriors closed in on .500 by mid-October with a stretch of good play, but since that point there have been two separate losing streaks of four games or more, including a current five-game skid. One of the bright spots has been the play of rookie goalie Ryan Wischow, who currently leads the NAHL is save percentage at 94.6%. The Warriors have used seven different goalies this season and they recently added NAHL veteran Chase Munroe to the mix. Veterans Tyler Groat and AJ Marcinek have paced the offense this season, both with 11 goals to date. Defenseman Mitch Wedding is having his best career season with 21 points to date and the addition of Dalton Skelly has helped out as well. 14 of Michigan’s next 19 games are at home and in order to have a shot in March come crunch time, the Warriors need to win the majority of those games because the last six will be on the road and all against teams they are likely going to be battling a playoff spot with.
Springfield Jr. Blues (5th place, 14-16-2, 30 pts.)
The Jr. Blues find themselves just a point out of a playoff spot in the North Division and all things considered, it is something to build on for head coach Tony Zasowski and crew. The Jr. Blues have gotten very solid play from their two goalies, Dryden McKay and Niko Dellamaggorie, who are both rookies. Both have save percentages over 91% and both have sub 3.00 goals against averages. However, the struggles for the Jr. Blues this season have been the offensive production and winning on the road. Springfield is last in the NAHL in goals scored per game at just 2.22. The line-up does not feature a single player who has scored double-digits in goals to date. Josh Lammon leads the team with nine goals, but it is defenseman Lester Lancaster, who leads the team in scoring with 21 points. Defensively, the recent addition of Cameron Cooper and the continued good play from Lancaster and others like Kyle Meeh, have the Jr. Blues feeling good about preventing the other team from scoring. But it is scoring themselves that needs to be addressed in the second half. The Jr. Blues only have five wins on the road this season, but two have come at South Division-leading Topeka and two have come in the Soo, the Jr. Blues are capable. The rest the rest of the way is very balanced and four of the last six are at home, so the Jr. Blues have as good of a shot at anyone to make the playoffs.
Johnstown Tomahawks (6th place, 13-13-2, 28 pts.)
The Tomahawks are a .500 hockey team at the break, but find themselves in last place in the North because they have played a league-low 28 games to date. The Tomahawks have also hit a recent skid, losing seven of their last 10 games. The Tomahawks play a physical brand of hockey, which has resulted them being one of the league leaders in penalty minutes, but they make up for it with the NAHL’s second best penalty-killing unit. But, like many other teams in the division, scoring has been hard to come by so far this season. The Tomahawks rank just 17th in offense, scoring 2.61 goals per game and only have one player (Cam Bleck) with at least 10 goals. Trevor Recktenwald and Joe Drabin are tied for the team lead in points with 21 and Johnstown has also seen recent production from Casey Linkenheld and Luke Lynch. The top eight scorers are all forwards. Ryan Bednard has been the workhorse in goal for Johnstown, ranking in the top six in both games and minutes played. The Tomahawks open the second half with eight straight home games and they have to be better at home than their 6-6 record to date. They have a two-week trip to Alaska and a trip to Janesville in the second half, so winning on home ice has to be a priority.