O'Neill nets Bandits MVP for work in front of it Unanimous choice withstands toughest tests

April 10, 1996|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

Even Carl Yastrzemski didn't get all the votes for MVP when he won the Triple Crown and led the Boston Red Sox to their highly improbable "Impossible Dream" American League pennant in 1967. Yeah, some joker in the upper Midwest found reason to vote Minnesota's Cesar Tovar onto the top of his list.

This gives you some idea of the kind of season Mike O'Neill has turned in for the Bandits as, on ballots submitted by 10 knowledgeable observers, the name of the veteran goaltender was unanimous for club MVP.

Not bad for a guy backing a team that started out 1-9-1 and didn't post its first road victory until its 10th game. Meanwhile, O'Neill was being tagged with just about all the defeats as the new team was, in effect, going without a full-time backup goalie.

Throughout those punching-bag days of the early season, though, O'Neill held to his conviction that "this team will get a lot better. It's just a question of time and the young players learning from their mistakes."

As far as playing every game, O'Neill welcomed the prospect from the outset, explaining, "most goalies will tell you they'd rather play too much than too little. It's all in the way you prepare and your ability to rest properly and avoid tension buildup."

There certainly was a chance for the latter in games like the one in Cornwall against the Aces Dec. 30. O'Neill picked up a shutout, 2-0, even though the home team was treated to a dozen power plays. Next night in Syracuse, he stopped 29 of 30 shots as the Bandits beat the Crunch, 2-1.

Defeats? Sure, all over the place. But from a record of 1-7-1, O'Neill got to 7-10-2 in a month's time. The Bandits were getting some players to replace the supposed prospects who more closely resembled suspects.

The defensive corps had no leader until Doug Crossman, a veteran of 900 NHL games, was signed by Anaheim and sent here, but only for 25 games.

Another defense had to be constructed by coach Walt Kyle and assistant Mike Gibbons while they hoped O'Neill would continue to keep the club in games.

Around the All-Star break in January, O'Neill had his record even at 18-18-4 and the team wasn't far behind (18-21-4). By that time the Bandits had played the best team in the Southern Division, Binghamton, six times and their coach George Burnett said, "I voted O'Neill my All-Star goalie. There was no doubt in my mind."

Sometimes, O'Neill didn't have a good game, but his mates came through. Like the night they beat the Bears in Hershey in overtime, 7-6, on Mike Maneluk's goal. Other times, he had to fend for himself. Teams threw 20-plus shots at him in a period, Hershey had 47 shots in a game and Binghamton 48, but this was nothing next to the 56 the Americans sent O'Neill's way March 31 in Rochester. O'Neill stopped 'em all.

That was in the midst of Baltimore's quest for the last spot in the AHL playoffs and the team plowed through Albany, Binghamton and Rochester during a three-game weekend to pull away from Carolina. Guess who was between the pipes?

If you heard it once, you heard it a dozen times from teams visiting the Arena: "The difference in the game was O'Neill. He kept 'em in it early."

Before tonight's Bandits-Hershey game at the Arena, O'Neill will be honored as he breaks the record for game appearances by an AHL goalie, 73. The mark of 72 stood for 31 years and belonged to Ray Edwards and Gerry Cheevers. At the same time, O'Neill leads the league in wins (31), saves (1,962), minutes played (4,170) and losses (30).

HTC

Bandits tonight Opponent: Hershey Bears

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7

Radio: WITH (1230 AM), WAMD (970 AM)

Outlook: It's the penultimate game of the 12-game season series in which the Bears hold a 5-4-1 advantage, including 3-1-1 here.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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