Friday, March 21, 2008

Bandits invade Traverse City this weekend

Just when the Traverse City North Stars need to grab every single available point in their pursuit of the fourth and final playoff spot in the NAHL North, along come the defending champs.

The St. Louis Bandits come into the final weekend homestand of the regular season at Centre ICE arena, toting the NAHL’s best record (44-9-2), a roster that is chock-full of NCAA Division I commitments and the Robertson Cup.

“They’re pretty much the top team in the league no matter how you look at it,” surmised North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “We’re going to compete hard and play our best hockey to get what we need to get out of this series.”

The North Stars’ late-season combustion was quelled – but not extinguished – last weekend in Mahoning Valley, as Traverse City’s seven-game win streak was halted. The Stars are two points behind the fourth-place U.S. National Team Development Program for the last postseason spot, with Marquette a point up on TC in fifth. Marquette and Team USA embark on a two-game series this weekend, with the North Stars heading to Marquette next weekend to cap the regular season.

“There are a lot of computations and scenarios there, but if we don’t take care of our end, it won’t matter much,” Palumbo added. “We’re already in playoff mode, essentially. These last games are every bit as must-win as any playoff series would be.”

The Bandits would have some cause to enter the weekend without a sense of urgency, having locked up the league’s top overall record/seed, the North Division regular season crown, and sit squarely in the catbird seat heading into the Robertson Cup playoffs. However, the club is laden with top-college talent, as no fewer than seven D-1 signatories dot the St. Louis roster: Sam Bozoian (Harvard), Tom Brooks (Robert Morris), Nick Condon (Notre Dame), Andrew Hamburg (Colorado College), Mike Hull (Army), Mike Merrifield (Michigan State) and Ben Warda (Michigan State).

Warda leads the Bandits with 71 points – good enough for fourth overall in the NAHL – while Kyle O’Kane is tops in goals (38) and Mike Leone first with 44 assists. In net, both all-star Cal Heeter (22-6-1) and Mike Johnson (21-3-1) are essentially impermeable, permitting just over 2.5 goals per outing.

For the host Stars, Nate Urbaniak continues to re-write the club’s single-season scoring records for goals (25) and points (60), while Kyle Bonis has 12 points in his past six outings. Goalkeepers Chris Paliafito and Brandon Stephenson are each a series removed from their first career shutouts.

Both weekend contests get underway at 7 p.m.

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