Mid-season report: Midwest Division
The newly created Midwest Division has already provided plenty of drama this season and has become a two-team race through the first half of the season. To no one’s surprise the St. Louis Bandits (24-6-2, 50 points) sit atop of the division, a place they have become all too familiar with since moving to St. Louis in 2006. Since that time, the Bandits have won their division in the regular season four of the last five seasons. Like Bismarck, the Bandits have done it with an explosive offense and a stingy defense. The Bandits 24 wins rank 2nd in the NAHL. Leading the charge is third-year forward Joe Kalisz, who is tied for 3rd in league scoring with 43 points. Forwards Frank Dichiara and University of Connecticut recruit Joe Birmingham have stepped up their play as of late to help the high-powered offense. St. Louis is the only team in the NAHL whose top 10 scorers are all forwards. The Bandits blueline corps is young, disciplined and very defensive-minded. They don’t give up many chances to the opposition to score. When the chance does arise however, the Bandits may have one of the best 1-2 goaltending tandems in the league in Spencer Viele and Tyler Green. Viele is tied for the league lead in wins with 17 and ranks in the top 10 in goals against average. Green was a recent pick-up from Wichita Falls, where he had seen plenty of time for the Wildcats. After missing out on the Robertson Cup Tournament last year for the first time in four years, it appears the Bandits are poised to get back to where they feel they belong.
The Bandits main competition in the division has come from the 2nd place Janesville Jets (22-6-3, 47 points), who find themselves three points behind the Bandits for 1st place with a game in hand. The Jets have the best record in the NAHL of any non-divisional leader. Although not the highest scoring team, any lack of offense is made up for with solid defense and good goaltending. Second year netminder Tony Kujava, who has already won NAHL goaltender of the month honors, is tied for the league lead in wins with 17 and is in the top three in goals against average and save percentage. He also leads the NAHL in shutouts with seven. Defenseman and Colorado College recruit Garrett Cecere is one of the best young blueliners in the league and forwards Connor McBride and Jordan Bancroft can provide plenty of offense when needed. With the addition of Pijus Rulevicius up front the Jets have one of the best power plays in the league, also thanks to the fact the team is so disciplined, taking very few penalty minutes per game. What may get Janesville over the hump this season to their first Robertson Cup tournament is the fact that they can win on the road. It is something they will eventually have to do to taste playoff success, but they remain a legit cup contender and still a viable threat to win the Midwest.
Hovering in 3rd place is the Coulee Region Chill (11-15-4, 26 points), who remain a team looking for an identity. The Chill were one game away from advancing to the Robertson Cup last season and opened this season with high hopes. After going 3-1-0 at the Showcase, Coulee Region was plagued by inconsistency in October and November. In the month of November, the Chill posted just a 2-6-1 record and fell behind the pack leaders. After a 42-point season last year, David Ripple is the leading scorer this season for the Chill, but with just 19 points. Coulee Region ranks 22nd in both goals for per game and goals against per game, something that has to improve during the second half. The Chill have some very solid defensemen, namely Matt Blomquist, Eric Drapluk and Brady Riesgraf, who have all committed to NCAA Division I schools. The team MVP thus far may be goaltender Aaron Davis, who leads the league in saves and who has been playing his best hockey the season the last two months. Despite having a 3.30 goals against average, Davis has a very respectable 91.6% save percentage, which may indicate that Chill need more offense to challenge St. Louis and Janesville. Forwards like Ben Jaremko, Ross Luedtke and James Hughes will all have to have big second halves of the season for the Chill to ensure themselves of a playoff spot and have a chance to compete with the division leaders.
Another team looking for consistency is the Springfield Jr. Blues (12-18-1, 25 points), who sit a point behind the Chill for 4th place in the Midwest Division. The Jr. Blues have always been known as a rough and tumble team, and this year is no exception as they rank second in the NAHL in penalty minutes per game. Springfield is one of only six teams in the NAHL with a sub .500 record at home, which is a little concerning, but they are almost a .500 team on road. The one thing the Jr. Blues do not lack is offense. Springfield is one of only six teams in the NAHL (and the only one with a losing record) that has three or more players with at least 30 points so far this season. Mercyhurst recruit Kyle Cook leads is tied for the team lead in points and leads the Jr. Blues in goals. Josef Pontasch has had a torrid month of December and Chris Sitler remains one of the most underrated players in the league. Sitler is having a career season, which has really helped the Jr. Blues cause to this point. The team is still without a go-to netminder between the pipes. Both Tyler Parks and Connor Girard have split time and although Parks has the better numbers, the Jr. Blues rank 24th in the NAHL in goals against average, allowing 3.65 goals against per game. Only one of the Jr. Blues seven rostered defensemen (Kevin Walters) has a + rating, a number that has to change if the Jr. Blues want to be a threat in the playoffs against the defensive-minded Bandits and Jets that they will potentially face in the 1st round of the playoffs.
On the outside, looking in within the Midwest Division is the Chicago Hitmen (6-23-1, 13 points). In their first season last year, the Hitmen had just nine wins. This season, they are on track to top that with six wins through the first half of the season, but right now it isn’t enough to be considered a playoff contender. Part of the problem has been the Hitmen’s tendency to be a streaky team. Three times this season, the Hitmen have put together losing streaks of five games or more. On the flip side, the wins have also come in bunches, which tells the casual fan that Chicago is capable of stringing together wins to become a potential challenger. Case in point was a stretch in October in which the Hitmen beat Janesville and Springfield and took seven of a possible 10 points in five games. Forward Zach Schrotenboer has been a very nice addition to the roster since coming over from Topeka and is averaging well over a point per game. David Gandara leads the team in scoring and is one of the few with a positive +/- rating and defenseman Alex Murphy is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. The one single thing that has to get better for Chicago is team defense. The Hitmen allow over five goals per game and over 42 shots per game, both of which are the most in the NAHL and their penalty kill ranks second to last. With respectable offensive numbers and talent, the Hitmen have the potential to make some noise in the second half of the season, but only if their team defense makes vast improvements in a short period of time.
Next up in the NAHL mid-season reports: The North Division