While the perennial power St. Louis Bandits won the division’s regular-season title by five points, the North still boasts a number veteran teams with playoff experience.
In semifinals, the Bandits will tangle with the Janesville Jets, while the No. 2-seeded Traverse City North Stars will take on the Michigan Warriors.
St. Louis Bandits vs. Janesville Jets
One of the more intriguing No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchups - and potentially the most competitive - will be the St. Louis Bandits against the Janesville Jets.
For the majority of the season, these two teams were Nos. 1-2, respectively, in the North Division before Janesville cooled off at the end and found themselves in the fourth and final playoff spot after the final regular-season game of the year. Head-to-head this season, St. Louis won the season series, winning four of the seven games.
If Janesville is going to have success, it needs to look no further than in goal and goaltender David Jacobson. Jacobson was in the top five in the league in wins, minutes played and goals-against average. From December to early February, Jacobson won 11 of 12 starts and was named the NAHL Goalie of the Month for January, but, since Feb. 11, Jacobson has had just two wins in nine starts.
“Good goaltending will be very important for us,” said Jets head coach Dane Litke. “In our wins against St. Louis back in November, David was outstanding in net and he’ll have to be in this series. We have a lot of confidence he can get it done.”
Case in point was the Jets three wins over the Bandits this season, in which the team allowed just four goals in the three victories. All three victories for the Jets came at home, which comes as no surprise as the Jets were the league’s best home team during the regular season.
It’s clear by the season series numbers that the Jets’ offense has to improve its output against the Bandits if they want to defeat the Bandits in the series.
Janesville was shutout twice and their leading scorers in the series, Ross Mauermann and Derek Jacobson, had just three points apiece in the seven games.
“We have to find a way to win in St. Louis, period,” said Litke. “We’ve never won there as a franchise, so we have to do something different and change the culture because in this series, without the home-ice advantage, it is a must if we want to move on.”
Meanwhile, the Bandits, who won their division for the fourth time in the last five years, are rolling heading into their series with Janesville. The Bandits closed out the regular season with four straight wins, which included a weekend sweep in Topeka against the RoadRunners two weeks ago.
The Bandits finished right behind the RoadRunners for the league’s best over all record and appear poised for another Robertson Cup run after falling short in the tournament last season in Wenatchee.
“I think we’re a confident group and those wins in Topeka really gave us a shot in the arm,” said St. Louis head coach Jeff Brown. “The playoffs are always a challenge, but we feel like we are healthy and a hungry group.”
The Bandits being a healthy and hungry group may be bad news for the rest of the league. The Bandits want to return to the glory they experienced from 2007-09 when they won three straight Robertson Cups, becoming only the fourth team in NAHL history to win three straight titles.
Brown made it clear he will need production from his top line of Chris Ciotti, Ryan Stouffer and Joe Kalisz for the Bandits to get back to the title.
Stouffer and Kalisz were injured during different parts of the regular season, breaking up the line, but the production from Ciotti remained constant.
Once they all returned, Brown said they still are working on getting back their old magic.
“We know it’s there with that line, but they still need time to gel and get back to where they were before the injuries. I think if they can produce for us in the playoffs, we should have a great chance.”
Another bid dilemma for Brown is who to start in goal. Since the arrival of Matt Green in late October, it’s been goaltending-by-committee with Tom Comunale, who finished with the lowest goals-against average in the NAHL this season at 1.75 - the lowest total in the NAHL in six years - and Green was third in the league with a 2.04 goals-against average.
“I’m going to go with what my gut tells me,” said Brown. “We have confidence in both goalies, so I expect them to step up and play like they have all season.
“Janesville is going to be a big challenge. People forgot that for the majority of the first half of the season they were a first-place team,” Brown added. “They’re well coached and it’s going to be an exciting series for sure.”
Traverse City North Stars vs. Michigan Warriors
One of the reasons the Traverse City-Michigan semifinals series is so intriguing is because the two teams have played one another 11 times this season.
The North Stars won the season series, 7-4, but three of the Warriors’ losses came in overtime or a shootout. Traverse City is one of the league’s hottest teams coming into the playoffs, having gone 10-2-0 in the month of March. The North Stars made a huge statement a few weeks ago when they took two of three games at division champion St. Louis.
The North Stars are the defending North Division playoff champions and finished third at last year’s Robertson Cup championship Tournament, but head coach Anthony Palumbo is treating this year’s North Stars team as a completely different group.
“The experience is nice, yes, but we have a group of young guys and different players who weren’t with us last season and have yet to go through something like this.”
One of the players Palumbo is going to rely on is forward Kelin Ainsworth, who was one of the few that helped Traverse City achieve so much playoff success last season. This year, Ainsworth led the North Stars in scoring against the Warriors with 13 points in the 11 games.
The North Stars also have a veteran player in Tim Opie, who’s proven to be one of the most clutch players in the NAHL this season. Not only did Opie have 60 points to lead Traverse City in scoring this season, he had a league-high nine game-winning goals.
Although Palumbo hasn’t indicated which goalie will be starting the series, both newcomer Steve Bolton and second-year North Stars netminder Tyler Marble are capable of the job. If numbers tell the story, Palumbo may lean towards Bolton, who went a perfect 3-0 against the Warriors this season.
“Goaltending will be huge in this series,” said Palumbo. “They have one the best goaltenders in the league in Robert Tadazak and our guys need to be equally as good in the series. That could be the difference.”
The Warriors are right there with the Amarillo Bulls when it comes to first-year team success stories in the NAHL this season. The Warriors were so consistent this season they never lost more than two straight games in regulation.
The Warriors won eight out of their last nine games to end the regular season, including two of the last three against the Janesville Jets in the final weekend to secure the No. 3 seed on the final day of the regular season.
“The key for us is that we’ve been playing playoff-type hockey since January,” said Warriors head coach Moe Mantha. “We’ve built a lot of confidence as a team because the games have been so meaningful and the wins over Janesville last weekend were very emotional and just like a mini three-game playoff series, so I think our guys will be ready.”
Although this is Mantha’s first go-around as a head coach in the NAHL, the Warriors will no doubt benefit from Mantha’s previous experience as a head coach for six years in the OHL, ECHL and AHL.
“I’ve learned that in order to have success in this year’s or any playoffs for that matter, your team is going to have to stay disciplined and stay out of the penalty box,” said Mantha. “Traverse City has good special teams and, with our games this year being so close, we have to keep their chances to a minimum and take advantage of ours.”
Ultimately, however, the Warriors’ success will hinge on their two-headed monster of Tadazak and forward Andrew Kolb.
Tadazak is a legitimate NAHL MVP candidate and his numbers this season prove it. He was second in the NAHL in goals-against average (1.77), third in wins (27), fourth in games played, but most impressive was Tadazak’s save percentage, which was an eye-popping .944 this season. It was one of the best single-season save percentages in NAHL history.
Kolb led the team in scoring with 65 points in just 44 games. Amazingly, Kolb went just eight games without scoring at least a point in a game this year.