Bandits' survival shows folly of AHL predictions Top division rivals gone, Baltimore gets home edge in series against Syracuse

April 30, 1996|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

Last member of the Southern Division still alive in the American Hockey League playoffs. Think on that one for a moment, Bandits fans.

A task thought to be impossible throughout 90 percent of the regular season -- beating out division leaders Binghamton and Hershey -- seemed unlikely as late as Sunday, when the Bandits overcame a two-goal deficit and beat the Bears in overtime in Hershey, 4-3.

While the I-83 rivals were on a seesaw for 10 days, Syracuse, an outlander from the Northern Division, was having a surprisingly easy time with Binghamton, winning three straight after dropping the opener.

Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Bandits and Crunch will be at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Arena, with Game 2 here at 7: 30 p.m. Friday before the best-of-seven series shifts to Syracuse.

It was a huge struggle, the Bandits making the playoffs, right?

Now here they are with home-ice edge against the Crunch. Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention knows, of course, that the Baltimore Arena provides no leverage for the home team.

While just one of three league teams with a winning record on the road (18-17-5), the Bandits were 15-21-4 here. That's with a good start (5-4) and finish (4-2). During one stretch, they won just five of 23 games at home.

If the past is prologue, the Bandits have to draw the favorite's role against Syracuse, a team they crunched four times in as many tries during the season. But things change quicker than the springtime weather in the AHL -- witness all four higher-seeded teams being eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals.

"First thing I said to the guys after [Sunday's] game in Hershey was, 'Forget the regular-season games against Syracuse,' " said Bandits coach Walt Kyle.

"It's tough to digest, losing like that," said Hershey coach Bill Barber. "But I had my doubts we'd be able to contain their offense the way we did during the last half of Game 3 and in Game 4. They were skating right through us [Sunday]. They're a very good team and they were especially so late in the season."

"We changed things," explained Kyle. "They gave us a lot of trouble when we'd throw the puck in deep and were slow following it in. [In Game 5] we were on them, pressuring immediately. They were coming out and we'd be coming in. We were winning the one-on-one battles, and it paid off."

That and good fortune, when Mike Maneluk's attempt "to just toss the puck out in front of the net" ended with it bouncing in off the leg of Hershey goalie Tim Cheveldae, who said: "I wish we had got beat on a 2-on-1, not that way."

Through the regular season and first round of the playoffs, Maneluk has five game-winning goals, four against Hershey. Sweet revenge, someone suggested, since Hershey's parent club, the Philadelphia Flyers, had invited Maneluk for a tryout. Barber was the Flyers' director of personnel then.

"That was a couple of years ago," said Maneluk. "It was a numbers thing; there were lots of guys there. I don't know how many guys they signed, but I was ready to go back to juniors anyway. I had a good year there."

The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least history up to date.

AHL playoff schedule, 10D

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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