Already a lock to defend their Robertson Cup championship as this year’s tournament host, the St. Louis Bandits haven’t let their foot off the gas, nailing down the NAHL’s North Division regular-season title while staring down their second straight league crown.
“Our guys have every reason not to play out the rest of the year after clinching first place in the North and knowing we’re hosting Nationals,” said Bandits coach-GM Jon Cooper. “But they show up everyday wanting to improve and wanting to win.”
They proved that last weekend with a two-game sweep over the Springfield Jr. Blues, starting with a 5-2 victory on Friday. Mike Leone potted two goals in the victory, including the game-winner, while Colorado College recruit Andrew Hamburg chipped in three assists. Between the pipes, Cal Heeter made 26 saves.
The next night, Ben Warda rang up a goal and assisted on Mike Merrifield’s game-winner as the Bandits downed the Jr. Blues, 3-1. Kyle O’Kane added two assists, and Mike Johnson turned back 28 shots to pick up the win in goal.
“We got solid goaltending and balanced scoring,” said Cooper, whose team improved to 41-8-2 on the season. “It seems like every line is contributing.”
With 62 points on the season – eighth most in the NAHL - O’Kane has been delivering all year. The 20-year-old’s 36 goals rank second in the league, and, with four assists last weekend, he’s also proving his versatility as a gifted setup man.
“Kyle is a goal-scorer and he’s good at it, but during those times when he’s struggling to find the back of the net, he helps us in other ways by setting up his linemates,” said Cooper. “His scoring ability stands out, but he’s arguably our team’s best passer.”
Warda, 20, continues to impress on both sides of the puck. The second-year forward who is tied for fifth in league scoring (68 points) was rewarded recently with a scholarship offer from Michigan State University, where he’ll begin play next season.
“Ben has taken the next step and become a complete player this season,” said Cooper. “I think he learned from last year’s team and the more defensive role he had. This year he continues to excel on defense, but he’s become an offensive force as well. Michigan State has caught lightning in a bottle with him.”
Unheralded in Cooper’s eyes, Leone has also played an important role in the Bandits’ success. Now in his third year with the organization, the 20-year-old has 14 goals for 58 points on the season.
“I think he might be the most underrated player in the league,” said Cooper. “I don't think I’ve ever seen him lose a puck battle, and he has a knack for scoring big goals for us at crucial times.”
On the defensive end, California native Jeff Cerccacci, who is a plus-22 in 41 games, has also made steady progress, much to the delight of Cooper.
“He’s really come into his own this year,” said the coach. “He knows how to play both ends of the ice at a high level.”
The Bandits are also benefiting from the exploits of Heeter and Johnson, two of the top goaltenders in the league. Both hold save percentages better than .900 while sharing equal minutes.
“What a luxury to have Mr. Friday Night (Heeter) and Mr. Saturday Night (Johnson),” said Cooper. “Our team doesn’t miss a beat with either one in net. We know if we break down, they’re there to bail us out.”
That and the leadership of Warda, O’Kane, Leone, Mike Murray, Wes Love, Tom Brooks and Sam Bozoian has gone a long ways in keeping St. Louis focused on another national title.
On the college front, Warda’s commitment to MSU marked the Bandits’ fifth of the year. As in season’s past, Cooper has no doubt more will follow in the coming months.
“Every year we have 10-12 Division I commitments and I don't see anything changing with this year’s group,” said the coach. “However, a ton of credit goes to the former Bandits playing in college right now; they’ve had so much success at that level, schools keep coming back to us for more.”
And with the Robertson Cup Championship less than two months away, the Bandits organization is already gearing up for what it expects to be a memorable week – and not just on the ice.
“We want to make sure that when people come to St. Louis for the Robertson Cup that they leave not only applauding the great hockey, but the total event as a whole,” said Cooper. “We’re honored to be the host and excited to show off this great city.”
Most importantly, though, the Bandits don’t want to take any shortcuts on the ice in their quest for a repeat.
“We want to make sure that when we get to the national tournament, that got there through the front door, and not just because we’re the host,” said Cooper.
AROUND THE NAHL
OUTLAWS TO HOST 2009 ROBERTSON CUP: The NAHL announced that North Iowa will host the 2009 Robertson Cup National Championship Tournament, which will be held at the North Iowa Ice Arena in Mason City, Iowa.
TORNADO TWOSOME COMMITS: Two Texas players have committed to Division I schools, with Tornado defenseman Matt Tennyson, 17, deciding on Western Michigan University (CCHA) and Jon Bobb, 19, heading to Army (Atlantic Hockey).
CARLSON TO BEMIDJI STATE: Second-year Fairbanks defenseman Matt Carlson, 20, has committed to Bemidji State University (CHA) for next season. The Grand Forks, N.D., native has three goals for 22 points after 45 games this year.
PHANTOM FORCE: Ferris State recruit Derek Graham, 19, continues to roll offensively, tallying two goals and three assists for Mahoning Valley in its two-game sweep over Alpena last weekend. “Derek is a dynamic offensive player that came up big when we needed him to," said Phantoms coach-GM Bob Mainhardt. "Not only did he produce offensively, but his defense and penalty-killing were a huge part of our success."
ALUM COPS CCHA HONOR: Western Michigan sophomore goaltender Riley Gill (Texarkana Bandits, 2005-06) was named the CCHA Goaltender of the Week after stopping 78 of 81 shots in a weekend split with Notre Dame, including 42 saves on Friday for his first shutout of the season and fifth of his career.
FORMER NORTH STAR GETS ESPN BILLING: Western Michigan freshman forward Patrick Nagorsen’s (Traverse City, 2005-07) first collegiate goal in the Broncos’ 3-0 win over Notre Dame on Friday was recognized by ESPN as one of its Top 10 plays.
ICEDIGGERS CRACK U18 TEAM: Alpena doubled up the U.S. Under-18 Team on Sunday, 4-2, marking the first time in history the IceDiggers have defeated the U18 squad. The victory also snapped Alpena’s six-game winless streak.
ON THE MARC: Fargo-Moorhead forward Marc Mihulka, 20, tallied three goals in two victories over Bismarck last weekend, including the game-winner in a shootout as the Jets downed the Bobcats on Friday, 3-2. “Marc continues to get what he deserves on the ice game after game,” said Jets assistant coach Aaron Kinslow.
ZACH ATTACK: In only his third appearance of the year, Southern Minnesota goaltender Zach Hansen, 18, posted his first shutout (25 saves) as the Express blanked Alexandria on Friday, 3-0. “Zach is doing a great job for us,” said Express coach-GM Matt Romaniski. “With one more year in the league, I think you’ll see Zach get a lot of college attention.”
TAURENCE COMES ALIVE: On a line with Joel Whited, 21, and Ryan Geary, 19, Bismarck forward Nick Taurence, 18, awakened to the tune of four goals in three games last weekend. "Nick had his best weekend as a Bobcat,” said Bobcats coach Byron Pool. “He provided some much-needed secondary offense for us last weekend.”
FORMER BOBCAT STARS WITH SIOUX: University of North Dakota junior goaltender Aaron Walski (Bismarck, 2004-05) made the most of his first collegiate start on February 24, turning aside all 13 shots in the Fighting Sioux’s 1-0 shutout of Bemidji State. “It was nice to get back into a real game.” Walski said. “I was a bit nervous coming in since I hadn’t played in a while, but I felt fine.”