With an 11-1-1 record after 13 games, the three-time defending Robertson Cup champion St. Louis Bandits are pleased with the start to their season, but admit there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“We’re happy with our progress,” said Bandits assistant coach Rocky Russo, whose team picked up three points in a two-game set against the Texas Tornado last weekend. “There’s a lot of aspects of our game we can improve on, but we’ve found a way to win and that’s the most important thing.”
Credit Dan Olszewski for much of the team’s early success. The second-year forward from Janesville, Wis., leads the Bandits in scoring with seven goals for 14 points. Those numbers already trump the 13 points he put up a year ago in 38 regular-season games with St. Louis.
“Ozzie has been great for us,” Russo said of the 20-year-old. “He’s our captain and a leader, on and off the ice. He was a role player for the team last season and has developed into a complete hockey player.
“He plays in all situations for us and has a great knack for scoring a big goal or blocking a shot when we need it. He has the potential to be an excellent Division I college player.”
The Bandits also got a big boost in goal when they picked up Garrett Bartus, who minded net for the Mahoning Valley Phantoms the previous two seasons. The St. Charles, Mo., native has six wins to his credit this year to go along with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.
No stranger to St. Louis, Bartus was on the losing end of the Bandits’ 5-2 victory in the 2008 Robertson Cup Tournament championship game.
“He’s playing excellent for us,” said Russo. “He’s a veteran in the league with championship-game experience. Adding a 20-year-old with his type of experience is invaluable to our club.”
St. Louis also has high hopes for young Ryan Belonger. The 17-year-old forward from Green Bay, Wis., potted both goals in the Bandits’ 2-1 win over Texas on Friday.
“We expect him to build off that in the weeks to come,” said Russo. “He’s starting to get it going.”
And like seasons past, there’s no rest for the weary in the five-team South Division, where the competitiveness from top to bottom is again at its best.
“It’s always tough and this year is no different,” said Russo. “We have to be prepared to play our best every night. You can’t afford to make mistakes because the other teams in this division will capitalize on every one of them.”
The Bandits will get perhaps their biggest test of the season this coming weekend when the division-leading Topeka RoadRunners (11-2-2, 24 points) visit St. Louis for a three-game set beginning on Friday.
“Topeka is a team we have great respect for,” said Russo. “They’re having an excellent season and we can expect three great games from them this weekend.
“(RoadRunners head coach) Scott (Langer) has a very talented team, so we need to be prepared to play our game and do all the little things that are necessary to win.”