For one team, it’s a return to glory, and for the other, a shot at glory.
Thus sums up the North Division finals series between the St. Louis Bandits and Michigan Warriors.
The Bandits return to the division finals for the fifth straight season. As a matter of fact, the Bandits have been in the division finals in every season since moving to St. Louis in 2006. During that same span, the Bandits have made four straight Robertson Cup appearances.
After becoming only the fourth team in NAHL history to win three or more titles in a row from 2007-09, the Bandits’ trip to the Robertson Cup in Wenatchee last year didn’t go as planned, which is why the Bandits seem to be on another mission this year in their quest to regain the glory.
The Bandits advanced to the finals with a divisional semifinal win over the Janesville Jets, but it took all five games. The first four games were all decided by one goal as the Jets gave the Bandits all they could handle.
St. Louis took Game 1, 3-2, as Isak Quakenbush scored the game-winning goal in the third period and goaltender Tom Comunale made 27 saves. Janesville bounced back in Game 2, winning its first-ever game in St. Louis, 4-3.
Thanks to two goals from Brad Smith, the Bandits regained the series lead with a 2-1 win in Janesville in Game 3. Goaltender Matt Green stopped 18 of 19 shots. The Jets again answered with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 4, sending the series back to St. Louis for a fifth and deciding game.
In Game 5, the Bandits’ big players came to play as Chris Ciotti and Ryan Stouffer each had three points and Comunale stopped all 22 Jets shots leading the Bandits to a 4-0 win.
The Bandits will have to bring their A-game against the Warriors just as they did in the regular season. The Bandits went 3-1-1 in the regular season against Michigan, but the last time the two teams faced one another was back in mid-January, so a lot has changed.
Meanwhile, the first-year Warriors continue to impress with their four-game series victory over the second-ranked Traverse City North Stars. The Warriors took control from the start of the series with a 3-1 win in Game 1 over the North Stars. Goaltender Robert Tadazak made 25 saves and, after Traverse City scored the first goal of the game in the second period, Michigan scored the final three. The North Stars topped the Warriors in overtime, 5-4, in Game 2 to win their only game of the series.
As the series shifted back to Flint for Games 3 and 4, it was forward A.J. White who led the attack for the Warriors and ultimately led them to the division finals.
In Game 3, White scored the game-winning goal in overtime while Tadazak made 42 saves in a 3-2 win. In Game 4, White scored two goals and added an assist, Michael Szuma scored the game-winning goal and Tadazak posted his first playoff shutout with 24 saves in a 4-0 win.
To no one’s surprise, as goes Tadazak, so go the Warriors. Tadazak has picked up in the playoffs right where he left off in the regular season, putting up eye-popping numbers as he continues to lead his team towards the Robertson Cup. Tadazak’s goals-against average and save percentage are right around where they were for the regular season.
Including the regular season, Michigan has won 11 out of its last 13 games and there may be not team hotter right now in the NAHL. Behind it all is head coach Moe Mantha, who will rely on his head coaching and playoff experience in the AHL and the ECHL to help the Warriors try and pull the upset.