I arrived with a van full of Springfield fans at Hardee's Iceplex in Chesterfield, MO, yesterday evening for the season opener for the Jr. Blues. The initial buzz was that the team had used the off season as a way to get past some of their problems on offense. What I saw last night told me that the Jr. Blues reverted to the way they played in the first half of the 2010-2011 season.
Very few players would commit to the puck when it was on a Bandit's stick. I don't know how many times I'd see a Springfield player chase the puck carrier deep into St. Louis' defensive zone and then just slowly peel off like he'd done enough to keep the puck away from the Jr. Blues' goal. There was a huge amount of hesitation in the Jr. Blues' willingness to steal the puck or knock a Bandits player off of the puck unless it was behind the Jr. Blues' net. That unwillingness to stay with the puck in the Bandits' zone really killed the team's ability to score.
Another thing I noticed was that the Bandits had no trouble sending a player up the middle to disrupt long passes, but the Jr. Blues wouldn't do the same. There were plenty of opportunities to steal passes, but I didn't see anyone take the initiative and do so. I'd say at least three of the six Bandits goals came from positioning a guy to intercept the puck. That killed every bit of momentum the Jr. Blues built.
Fortunately, the Jr. Blues had two highlights in a pair of skillful goals in the second period. Kevin Walters buried a shot past the Bandits' goalie on a power play, and Shayne McLaughlin fired a beautiful top-shelf goal right over the goalie's blocker. New forwards Brent Skibba and Alex Bonito brought their speed into the game. I haven't seen players on the Jr. Blues clear the neutral zone so quickly like those two.
The real killer in last night's game wasn't the Bandits, it was the officiating. It seemed that if a St. Louis player fell over, sneezed, or shook his head, the Jr. Blues would catch a tripping or hooking penalty. The Bandits' scoreboard also didn't help the fans determine who was serving what penalty. After an elbowing penalty called on Tyler Rehm of the Jr. Blues that also resulted in a game misconduct and Rehm's ejection, it seemed that that the Jr. Blues would play the rest of the game with at least one man down. Trips and hooks on Jr. Blues players occurred right in front of both linesmen that never got called on the Bandits during the second period when the Jr. Blues were constantly running a penalty kill. At one point, the Jr. Blues had 3 players in the penalty box with no time showing on the scoreboard for any of the penalties. So, were the penalties up and the timekeepers not telling the Jr. Blues when they were done or was there a miscommunication on the bench from the Jr. Blues' coaching staff? Was there some other reason why it seemed like the team was stuck in the box all night?
This was a most unfortunate start for the Jr. Blues, all told. The deck got stacked against them early thanks to the disruption of penalties and Springfield could just not capitalize on what momentum their two goals built. Their next game is in Blaine, MN at the NAHL Showcase tournament. The Jr. Blues will face the Odessa Jackalopes, one of this year's new expansion teams, on Wednesday at 10:00am The Jr. Blues' home opener will be Friday Sept 30 against the Coulee Region Chill.