By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
As one of only four teams in NAHL history to win three or more Robertson Cup Championships, the St. Louis Bandits entered the 2010-11 looking to get back on top. After winning three straight titles, two under current head coach and former NHL defenseman Jeff Brown, the Bandits fell just short in the 2010 Robertson Cup Championship in Wenatchee. Entering last season, St. Louis again was the odds on favorite to go back to the Robertson Cup armed with another talented team and Brown behind the bench.
The regular season went as planned. Another patented St. Louis defense was the backbone of a team that again would enjoy their 6th straight 40+ win season, one away from tying the NAHL record. The Bandits led the league in goals against average and in penalty killing percentage, two of the staples that led them to so many recent Championships. “I don’t think there is a secret to what we do. Our players work hard and buy into a philosophy,” said Brown. “We try and recruit a certain type of player that works in that system and it worked again with the personnel we had last year.”
Consider that the Bandits were so consistent last season, they only lost two games in regulation in a row just once the entire season. However, it wasn’t until December until the Bandits turned on the jets and started to fly by everyone else in the North Division. During that final stretch of 28 games, the Bandits lost just five times in regulation, won another division title (their fourth in five years) and were the heavy favorite going into the North Division playoffs.
After a grueling five-game North Semi-Final series against the Janesville Jets, the Bandits would face the upstart Michigan Warriors in the North Finals. It would be a series dictated by one-goal games, four of them in fact and like the series before, the Bandits would be pushed to a fifth and final game for the right to again return to the Robertson Cup. This time it was not meant to be as the Bandits were edged 2-1 in Game 5 and their remarkable streak of four straight Robertson Cup appearances came to an end.
“Anytime you don’t win your last game in the playoffs, it’s a disappointment,” said Brown. “Our goal is to win every year and the last two years we have fallen short despite the fact that I believe we had a good enough team to win. That’s the fine line of all this… in order to win, a lot of things have to go right.”
It isn’t just all about winning for the Bandits. They placed another seven players from the 2010-11 team into NCAA Division I colleges, something Brown is particularly proud of. “Ultimately, it’s what we are here for, to get them experience so they can move onto the next level and get an education,” said Brown. “We are very proud of our alumni list and how that list continues to grow each passing season.”
So instead of rebuilding, the Bandits reload and remain motivated and eager to get back to the Robertson Cup Tournament. Brown said he wanted to get a little more size in the line-up, but most importantly he had to replace some key components to his defense that were lost, including both goaltenders and his top two defensemen. In goal this season, the Bandits will go with Spencer Viele and Tyler Last between the pipes. Viele is a rookie who played last season for the St. Louis Blues Midget Tier I 18U team and Last comes to the Bandits after spending the entire season along with seeing plenty of shots with Port Huron.
Up front the Bandits do return some key forwards. Joe Kalisz, who was injured for half the season last year, but still managed to rack up 30 points, returns healthy and ready to be an offensive leader for the Bandits. One of Kalisz’s linemates Ryan Stouffer also returns after posting 35 points, including 16 goals in just 40 games last season.
As for the new blood that will occupy the Bandits roster, Brown didn’t mention any names only because of his general philosophy on players new to the NAHL. “Once we start playing games, that is where I really start to evaluate the rookies,” said Brown. “It takes some time to adapt to the structure of NAHL games.”
Given their past recent history, St. Louis has to be one of the favorites not only to win another division title, but also return to the Robertson Cup. Perhaps falling just short the past two seasons will provide the team with the necessary motivation to get their name back on the cup for a fourth time in 2011-12.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Texas Tornado.