When it comes to the playoffs, the St. Louis Bandits have done it all.
They’re one of only four teams in North American Hockey League (NAHL) history to have won the Robertson Cup three or more times, along with the Compuware Ambassadors (11), Paddock Pools Saints (seven) and Texas Tornado (four), and just a few wins away from locking up their fourth division title in the past five years.
So what has been the secret for the Bandits? According to head coach Jeff Brown, the formula has been pretty consistent over the years.
“The players have to treat this as a team game and everyone has to buy into a certain system and play for the guy beside you,” said Brown. “We’ve had a lot of great players over the years, but we don't have playoff success unless they’re all on the same page.”
Last season, the Bandits were one of the odds-on favorites to win the Robertson Cup, which would have given them an amazing four straight titles, but it wasn’t to be. The Bandits forged through two brutal five-game series, first with the Texas Tornado in which they had to come back from being two games down. Then, it was another five-game series against Topeka. At the Robertson Cup in Wenatchee, the Bandits dropped three of four games to have their title run snapped.
“I think the mentality heading into the playoffs is different than the regular season, but you have to let the kids play and not worry about every little thing that may not go your way,” said Brown. “We have to play a style where defense comes first. I think the more pressure put on them by a coach, the less they’ll respond. You have to let them go out there and play.”
That defense-first mentality starts in goal for the Bandits, who, statistically, have the top two goaltenders in the NAHL this season in Tom Comunale and Matt Green.
Amazingly, their stats are almost identical, each having played 20 games both with a goals-against of 2.00 or less and save percentages right above .910.
Comunale, 20, is originally from Pittsburgh and is a product or the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL), having played last season with the Boston Jr. Rangers. Green, also 20, is from Buffalo, N.Y., but arrived in the NAHL having played last season in the United States Hockey League.
The Bandits allow the least amount of shots per game (22.69) than anyone else in the NAHL, but, despite the lack of offense by St. Louis opponents, it’s safe to say that Brown feels like the team success begins on defense starting with his two netminders. “
“Our goalies have been huge for us this season,” said the coach. “It’s not just their goals-against averages, but their save percentages. They haven’t faced a ton of shots this season, but they’ve made the big, timely saves and it’s kept us in games. When they haven’t, we’ve lost, so that really tells you something.”
The Bandits, who need just a handful of wins to lock up another regular-season title, face maybe their toughest stretch of games the next two weeks as they host the red-hot Traverse City North Stars for three games this weekend, followed by a trip to Topeka to face the first-place South Division RoadRunners the next weekend.
“Traverse City is a hot team right now who have won seven out of their last eight games, plus they spanked us pretty good the last time we played them up in Traverse City,” said Brown. “They have a good group of players and have a lot of youth, so we have to treat these next games like playoff games.
“The next two weeks will be great preparation for us to find out where we stand and what we need to improve on moving forward into the playoffs.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The Hitmen was swept in three games at home last weekend by the first-place St. Louis Bandits. Despite a 4-0 blanking on Friday night, goaltender Brennan Knoblock made 31 saves in the loss. On Saturday, goaltender Reid Mimmack made a career-high 52 saves, but it wasn’t enough in a hard-fought 6-3 loss to the Bandits. First-year forward Nick Booth, from Dallas, factored in on all three Hitmen goals, scoring two and adding an assist. On Sunday, a goal from Brent Formosa gave the Hitmen its first lead of the weekend less than two minutes into the game, but that would be all the scoring the Hitmen could get as the Bandits came away with a 4-1 win and a weekend sweep. Chicago’s schedule doesn’t get any easier with the next four games coming against the Michigan Warriors with two games in Flint beginning on Friday this weekend.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets maintained their spot in second place in the North Division with a weekend sweep at home against the Port Huron Fighting Falcons. On Friday, goaltender Tony Kujava stopped all 20 Fighting Falcons shots for his third shutout of the season and second shutout in his last three starts. It took until the third period to get the scoring going, but power-play goals by Alex Brooks and Pijus Rulevicius gave the Jets a 2-0 win. On Saturday, Rulevicius again stepped to the forefront, scoring his first career hat trick in a 4-3 win. The hat trick extended Rulevicius’ point streak to five straight games and forward Jeff Paczynski added the other goal. With the wins Janesville remains two points ahead of third-place Traverse City. The Jets remain the league’s best home team, but will finish the remainder of the regular season on the road beginning Friday with a weekend series at Port Huron.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: Despite having only won once in their last seven games, the Warriors remain in the fourth and final playoff spot by one point over Motor City with eight games remaining. Last weekend, the Warriors dropped three straight games to the Traverse City North Stars by a combined four goals. On Friday, Michigan managed a point falling 3-2 in a shootout. Ryan Trenz and Andrew Kolb scored in regulation for the Warriors. On Saturday, the Warriors appeared to be headed for overtime, but a North Stars goal with just .7 seconds remaining on the clock ended any hopes of extra time for the Warriors. Justin Hoomaian and Martin Gruse scored in the loss for Michigan. On Sunday, goaltender Branch Tiller stopped 28 of 29 shots, but it wasn’t enough as the Warriors’ offense was silenced in a 2-0 loss. Michigan opens up a three-game weekend with a road game against Port Huron on Thursday followed by a home series with Chicago beginning Friday.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: After taking last weekend off of games, the Metal Jackets return to action with the most regular-season games remaining (10) of any team in the NAHL. To make things more interesting, Motor City sits just a point behind the Michigan Warriors for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division, which includes a game in hand over the Warriors. Forward Cody Wydo, who leads the NAHL in goals, assists and points, needs 15 points in his last 10 games to reach the elusive 100-point mark, which hasn’t been accomplished in the NAHL since the 1994-95 when Kevin Swider scored 104 points in just 42 games for the Compuware Ambassadors. Six of the remaining 10 Metal Jackets games are against the Jr. Blues, including three this weekend in Springfield. However, Motor City’s final six games will all be played at home, including three against second-place Traverse City.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: The Fighting Falcons gave the league’s best home team, the Janesville Jets, all they could handle last weekend on the road, but fell in the two-game weekend series by just three combined goals. On Friday, goaltender Peter Megariotis made 41 saves, but the Fighting Falcons were shutout 2-0. On Saturday, Port Huron played with only 15 skaters, but managed to push the Jets to the limit. The Fighting Falcons led 2-1 after two periods thanks to two goals from Maxwell Reavis, but Janesville scored three third-period goals to edge the Fighting Falcons, 4-3. James Rudi Pino had the other goal in the loss for Port Huron and Reavis ended up with three points on the night. Tyler Last got the start in goal, making 33 saves. The Fighting Falcons prepare for a three-game home weekend beginning with Michigan on Thursday and Janesville on Friday and Saturday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: After a rare weekend off, the Jr. Blues continue their current seven-game homestand with three games this weekend against the Motor City Metal Jackets. Springfield remains 11 points out of a playoff spot with just eight games remaining, but can do themselves some good by beating Motor City this weekend and hoping for some help from some other teams. This is the first meeting of the season between Springfield and Motor City, who will play one another six times in the final three weeks of the regular season. No player has been hotter for the Jr. Blues than Gavin Tufte, who has five goals and 11 points in his last 10 games. Goaltender Caleb Neal, who recorded a shutout during his last start, played more games in the month of February than the previous months combined. The Jr. Blues have won their last two games and six out of their last 10. Ethan Nauman continues to pace the Jr. Blues in scoring with 50 points in 49 games played.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Perhaps no team made more noise last week in the NAHL than the Traverse City North Stars. By winning all three games over the Michigan Warriors, the North Stars picked up six valuable points in the standings and now are a threat to take over second place, sitting just two points behind the Janesville Jets, which includes two games in hand. On Friday, Alec Shields had a goal in regulation and the shootout winner as Traverse City won, 3-2. Steve Bolton made 36 saves in the win. On Saturday, Shields again played the hero scoring the game-winning goal with just .7 seconds remaining. Sean Murphy and Jared Van Wormer had the other North Stars goals in the win. On Sunday, goaltender Tyler Marble stopped all 25 shots and James Albrecht scored the game-winning goal in a 2-0 shutout win. The North Stars may face their toughest challenge all season as they travel to division-leading St. Louis for a three-game series beginning Friday against the Bandits.