Southern Tier Making Run At East Division Playoff Spot
A strong finish to the North American Tier III Hockey League season has put the Southern Tier Xpress in position to rally for an East Division playoff spot over their final five games.
The Xpress (20-22-0-0) have gone 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, including a four-game winning streak that has featured wins over the East Division first-place Metro Jets (38-5-1-0) and second-place Pittsburgh Vengeance (31-11-1-0), as well as a weekend sweep of the Northeast Division second-place Niagara Falls PowerHawks (22-18-1-2).
“The way the room has come together the second half of the year has been impressive from a coaching standpoint,” general manager and assistant coach Travis Sanders said Thursday night. “The new guys have stepped right in. They are all bought in and on board. They are hungry to make this work.”
The Wooster Oilers (20-18-3-1) currently hold the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the East Division with 44 points, but are just 4-5-0-1 in their past 10 games, including a 1-2-0-0 weekend against Southern Tier Feb. 9-11 at Northwest Arena.
The Xpress travel to Fraser, Michigan this weekend for a Saturday-Sunday set with the Jets at Fraser Hockeyland. Metro has lost just five games all season, including a pair to North Iowa on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, in addition to a two-game sweep by Pittsburgh Nov. 18-19.
The Jets had their way with Southern Tier earlier this season, handing the Xpress an 8-2 loss, an 8-0 loss and a 9-1 loss, but Southern Tier’s 4-3 win earlier this month has given the team renewed confidence.
“For some of these guys … I went around the room and gave a couple of hugs. For these guys who have been here an extended time, knowing the struggles we have had against teams like Metro — perennial powerhouses, to be so close in the past — to come out and do that in the middle of this playoff push was incredible,” Sanders said. “Confidence plays a major role in hockey. I can’t think of a better way to gain confidence than beating one of the best teams in the country.”
A recent run of success for the Xpress has revolved around the stellar play of their most consistent line. Joey Gerace (Jamestown), Stuart Pearson (New Richmond, Wisc.) and Michael Lamison (Johnstown, Pa.) have combined for 116 points on the season, having done their best work in the latter part of the schedule.
“If their line is not putting points up, it seems the other lines do come in and put points up,” Sanders said. “Overall, if I were to say one line is consistently strong, that would be the line that has really come together since the showcase in Minnesota. That’s where we saw them first click. It’s been getting better and better with those three.”
Pearson leads the team with 26 goals to go along with 17 assists. He has at least a point in 10 straight games, totaling 10 goals and six assists in that span.
Gerace leads the team in points with 45 and assists with 29. He has at least a point in nine of his last 13 games, totaling eight goals and 15 assists during that span.
“I’m so impressed with Joey. On a maturity level, watching him grow into a young man. The way that he conducts himself, he is very professional and passionate with the guys in the locker room,” Sanders said. “They know how much he cares about the game and the guys in the locker room. While he has matured and gotten experience, it is showing on the stat sheet. That’s a credit to Joey and the time and passion he has put into this sport that he loves.”
Lamison has seven goals and 22 assists in 37 games played while the three are a combined plus-62. Lamison was in on all four goals against Metro on Feb. 16 with a goal and three assists while dishing out three assists again in the Xpress’ 7-2 victory over Niagara Falls this past Friday.
The trio will have to continue to shine for Southern Tier to have success over its final five games. After this weekend’s two-game series in Fraser, the Xpress will travel to Toledo for a two-game series with the East Division last-place Cherokee on March 9-10, before a Sunday, March 11 matinee against the Northeast Division last-place Roc City Royals at Northwest Arena.
“I think it’s their dedication on the ice and off the ice … the way they carry themselves and their character,” Sanders said. “Those three guys put a lot of extra time in whether it’s community service, in the workout room, or their consistent effort in practice. Those are the guys that set the stage in the locker room.”
While the Xpress are in Michigan taking on the Jets this weekend, Wooster will be playing a home-and-home with the Vengeance. On Friday, March 9, the Oilers will host the Jets before hosting the Midwest Division second-place Peoria Mustangs for two games to finish their season March 10-11.
“They are fighting for their playoff lives, too. Even though they have a lead, they are definitely on notice that we are doing everything we can to pass them during this last stretch here,” Sanders said of Wooster. “We are both playing playoff hockey right now. Teams start playing playoff hockey in January through the last part of the year.”