Thursday, November 17, 2005

North Stars gear up for Bandits

The Texarkana Bandits are right where the Traverse City North Stars want to be: on the precipice of a North American Hockey League championship. This weekend at Centre ICE, the Stars can find out just how far away they are.

The Bandits roll into TC brandishing a 12-4-1 record after a split last weekend with two-time defending NAHL champion Texas, and having won 10 of their last 12 outings – including four wins over the division-leading Tornado. Texarkana is also the model franchise for an organization like the North Stars, according to head coach-GM Scott Gardiner.

“They’re in their third year (as a franchise) and they’re one of the best teams in the league,” Gardiner explained. “They say it takes about three years to build a championship team and they’ve got all the makings this year. (Bandits head coach) Jon Cooper has done a great job with the team.”

The Bandits also sport something that the North Stars can’t – a roster dotted with veterans of NAHL rigors.

“We went through our first two expansion years,” said Cooper, who has many Michigan ties including a stint as head coach at a Lansing-area high school (Catholic Central), downstate Junior B club (Metro Jets) and HoneyBaked midget major as well as having a wife who hails from Cadillac. “Now, into our third year we have a good core of veterans, and this is the first year we’ve been able to have that kind of veteran leadership you need to have if you want to succeed in this league.”

Texarkana has no offensive players among the top 25 leading scorers in the NAHL, but boast seven who have reached double-digit points over the team’s 17 contests. Forwards Anthony Becker and Aaron Lewicki (Livonia) lead the way with 17 points each, while Becker and forward Jason Weeks pace the club with nine goals each.

Riley Gill has done yeoman’s work in net for the Bandits this season, logging over 900 minutes in 15 appearances. Gill is seventh in the NAHL in both goals-against average (2.59) and save percentage (.919).

Gardiner says that facing an array of offensive and defensive weapons is the perfect barometer by which to measure his team’s progress in its inaugural campaign.

“That’s why we scheduled Texas and Texarkana,” he said. “We want to see where we stand as a first-year team, we want to know how we stack up against the best teams.”

Traverse City forward Zeke Costello (pictured above), who played for Texarkana last season, says the Bandits will be a stiff challenge, but not an unassailable favorite.

“They know we’re an expansion team, but they’ll see pretty quickly that they’re going to have to tighten up their ‘D’,” said Costello, who has four goals and eight assists through 19 contests in 2005-06. “They’re definitely one of the elite teams in the league, but just like anyone else, they can be beaten on any given night.

“They’re going to get up here and it’s not going to be 85 degrees and they’ll have been traveling for a while. Plus, their rink has been down and they haven’t skated since last Saturday, so we’re going to try to take advantage of that if we can.”

Patrick Nagorsen still leads the North Stars in scoring with eight goals and eight assists in 19 games, while Jared Mullen (six goals, eight assists) is second with 14 points.

Cooper says that while the North Stars are a talented crew, he also knows that Gardiner will have his team ready for action.

“If I know Scotty, he always has his teams prepared and working hard. I had a chance to see them in Blaine (at the NAHL Showcase last month), and they’re a scary team to play against because they come at you with everything they have. If you let up for a second, they will make you pay for it.”

Friday’s game is slated for a 7:30 p.m. face-off, while Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. start time will be preceded at 5:00 p.m. by the Pat Erway Hockey Benefit.

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