This past weekend saw a two-game set at Nelson Center between the Springfield Jr. Blues and the St. Louis Bandits. The Jr. Blues lost both games this weekend, losing the first game in a 6-1 curbstomping and losing the second game in a much tighter 4-3 loss.
St. Louis came into Springfield at the top of the NAHL North Division, with no plans on leaving any time soon. Springfield was in third place with a 17-13-2 record behind St. Louis and the Motor City Metal Jackets. The first game against the Bandits didn't start well at all, with the Bandits scoring twice in the first minute (Steven Bopp at 0:17 and Brad Smith at 1:04). The third goal at 9:30 from Matt Gellatly chased Jr. Blues backup goalie Caleb Neal from the net, with Coach Maher bringing in regular goalie Andrew Martin. Cody Ganchar scored again for St. Louis at 14:32, showing the major speed and strategy differences between the two teams. Gavin Tufte scored Springfield's only goal at 15:34, with Springfield mainstays Ethan Nauman and Jack Callahan getting assists.
The next two periods of the first game were only slightly better than the first period, with Brad Smith scoring his second of the night at 9:28 in the second and the last St. Louis goal coming from Chris Ciotti at 4:04 in the third period. Springfield was unable to add any further goals in the last two periods.
The second game on Saturday night was executed in a far better manner than Friday's game, but Springfield still lost 4-3. The Nelson Center was packed with fans from the day's earlier "Guns & Hoses" police vs. fire charity hockey game. The first period was held scoreless by both sides, with Springfield unable to capitalize on two first period penalties. The second period broke open the scoring as Gavin Tufte got the Jr. Blues on the scoreboard first with a power play goal at 1:03. Unfortunately, the scoring for the rest of the second period was all St. Louis as Kevin Zehnder scored two at 2:46 and 14:36 and Matt Gellatly scored a power play goal for St. Louis at 9:25. The Jr. Blues' enforcer Stewart Bell traded punches with Isak Quakenbush at 3:23, with Bell controlling the fight despite Quakenbush's reach and height advantages. The fight eventually stopped with Quakenbush collapsing on Bell and nearly faceplanting because of it. Bell carried the larger Quakenbush down, still swinging as the pair fell.
The Jr. Blues staged a fine comeback in the third period with goals from Stewart Bell and Ross Andersen, but a goal by St. Louis' Blake Edwards put the game just out of reach for the Jr. Blues. Andersen's goal was the second power play goal for Springfield that evening.
As of now, St. Louis is still on top of the North Division, and Springfield has fallen from third to sixth. Springfield is tied in wins with the Michigan Warriors and Janesville Jets at 17, but the team has five more losses than either due to having played five more games this season. Springfield's nearly three-week break will give the other teams a chance to catch up and hopefully drop a few games. The Jr. Blues' next game is January 8 at Nelson Center, facing St. Louis yet again.
The St. Louis Bandits are in first place because they're just that good. They prevented a lot of icing calls thanks to the speed of players like Quakenbush and Josh Dangel. They also swarm whoever has the puck, using three forwards to harrass their opponent up to the opponents' blue line and switching to three forwards and a defenseman up to the Bandtis' blue line and then to a one forward- two defenseman scrum inside their own zone. Takeaways happen with stunning regularity thanks to this strategy, as trying to pass means getting through three to four defenders, as does trying to shoot or even just move the puck closer. The Jr. Blues really drop their guard against St. Louis for some reason, and the team didn't complete all of its checks in Friday night's game. Saturday showed what completing checks and sticking with your man can do for you, but once again it seemed like the Jr. Blues would retreat to an almost basketball-like zone defense when they'd need man-to-man defense and an aggressive forecheck instead. Not stepping out of the zone and letting a rapid succession of goals demoralize the team really killed Springfield's chances at salvaging Friday's game.
Finally, my question to half of the hockey fans who showed up for the early game is this: where have you been all season? It's not like the games are all on school nights. The Jr. Blues' energy level was way higher on Saturday night from the start due to the larger crowd. Schedule nights to take your kids to the game. Tickets and concessions are cheaper than the movie theaters. Screw the local radio and tv outlets' lack of coverage, this is better than high school football or basketball. I remember when the Springfield Kings had a semipro team here with the old Continental Hockey League, and it withered due to lack interest. The same thing is likely to happen with our current baseball team. Let's not let that happen again.