October 1, 2013

Juniors Journal: Boston Bandits no longer an afterthought

By Shawn Hutcheon

When a team in any sport has the reputation of being a middle-of-the-pack club year after year, it tends to be overlooked and does not receive much publicity. This has been the recent history of the Boston Jr. Bandits.

Coach Todd Stirling’s teams were known for developing players and consistently placing them in college hockey programs, but they played in the shadows of the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s heavyweights.

This season, with the demise of the EJHL, the Bandits are playing in the Eastern Hockey League, which is a hybrid of the EJHL and the now-defunct Atlantic Junior Hockey League.

Boston had hoped to play well in the new league but it is doing that and more.

The Bandits are undefeated after its first five games in the circuit and not only lead the North Division with 10 points but the entire EHL.

Stirling is quick to note the quality of the league.

“We’ve played some good teams,” Stirling said. “There’s a parity to this league. Anyone can beat anyone else on any given night. We (EHL) don’t have 17 separate entities. We have 17 partners who want to move forward as a league. Everyone is on the same page. The goal is to send players on to college hockey and beyond.”

Even though, the EHL is a highly-competitive league, the coach is not surprised with his squad’s early-season success.

“We have high expectations and we’ve come together as a team quickly,” Stirling explained. “We play hard and have four lines that can score which gives us very good depth.”

A look at the Bandits’ statistics shows 14 players have scored at least one goal, while 18 players have registered at least one point on the young season.

Leading the way is the league’s top point producer, Alex Bonito. The Buffalo native is in his second season with the Bandits and has accumulated six lamplighters and three assists for nine points.

When asked about his quick start, the humble Bonito deflected the praise onto his linemates Matt Baldino (Woburn, Mass.) and Bryan Komasara.

“I just take the season one game at a time,” Bonito said. “I have two great linemates. Matt (Baldino) and I played midgets together with the Neponset Valley River Rats. That was the most fun I ever had playing youth hockey. I’m proud to say I was a River Rat. Bryan (Komasara) and I are from Buffalo so we knew each other from there. We (the line) just gelled from the first practice. We use our speed to get around defensemen and try to set each other up for the goals. It doesn’t matter who scores them as long as we score.”   

Agreeing with his coach, Bonito likes the style of play in the EHL.

“The teams that were added from the EJHL make the league a more physical, run-and-gun style,” the forward explained. “It’s a fun league to play in but you need to be focused every night and buckle down to be successful.”

Bonito has decided to play junior hockey with the goal to have his name added to the list of players Stirling has prepared for college hockey.

“Coming out of midgets, Todd was the coach I wanted to play for,” Bonito explained. “He’s great at preparing players for college and that’s why you play junior hockey, to get to that next level.”

The early success of the Jr. Bandits have made scouts sit up and take notice. As long as Bonito and his teammates continue their stellar play under Stirling’s guidance, it is highly likely the crafty scorer will be well-prepared for the rigors of the NCAA ice wars.

Game of the Week

The USPHL may be junior hockey’s newest league but there is nothing new about the intensity of a tilt between our fourth-ranked Islanders Hockey Club and the No. 1 rated South Shore Kings. The two clubs will face off against each other Friday at 2 p.m. in the Islanders new home arena on the campus of Merrimack College. The Kings lead the Islanders by two points in the standings and both squads will leave it all on the ice in this tilt.                            

Power Rankings

1) South Shore Kings (5-2-0-1) - The leader of the pack in the new United States Premier Hockey League. The Kings are led by University of Maine recruit Nolan Vesey (N. Reading, Mass.) who leads the league in scoring with nine points in eight games. Goaltender Pete Cronin (Norwell, Mass.) is third in the circuit with a 2.12 goals against average and also boasts a 3-0-0-1 record.

2) Bay State Breakers (5-1-0-0) - The second place club in the USPHL is being paced by its leading scorer, Sotiri Athanasopoulos’ eight points in six games. Sophomore netminder Ben Halford (Lenox, Mass.), a Princeton University recruit, is a perfect 4-0-0-0 on the young season.

3) Boston Jr. Bandits (5-0-0-0) - To the surprise of many, the Bandits have jumped out to a fast start and lead the Eastern Hockey League. Alexander Bonito leads the circuit with six goals and three assists totaling nice points in just six contests. Goaltender Ryan Hubbard has a four game win streak for the Bandits.

4) Islanders Hockey Club (4-3-1-0) - The Islanders have had to battle injuries as well as USPHL opponents resulting in a roller coaster start to the season. The club has enjoyed the consistency of forward Daniel Doherty (Danvers, Mass.), who is second in league scoring. Puck stopper Alex Morin has played the majority of the minutes and has a 3-3-0-0 record.     

5) New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs (4-2-0-0) - After losing their first game of the EHL season, the Monarchs reeled off four consecutive wins before being last week. Payton Baldillez is the second leading scorer in the EHL with nine points. In goal, Jake Theut has backstopped the his club to three of its four wins.

6) Boston Jr. Bruins (4-2-0-0) - Occupying fourth place in the USPHL is not what the Jr. Bruins had in mind when the season began but Boston is currently enjoying a three game win streak behind Brian Bowen’s (Littleton, MA.) four goals and five points in six games.  Second year starting goaltender Sean Lawrence has played every minute of the new season. His 1.85 goals against average is second best in the circuit.

7) Connecticut Oilers (3-1-0-1) - Residing in second place in the EHL’s Central Division, the Oilers have improve over last season. A big reason for the improvement has been the play of Joe Widmar, who is tied for second in league scoring with nine points. Nik Nugnes has returned for a second season between the pipes and has a 3-1-0-0 record.

8) Portland Jr. Pirates (2-4-0-1) - After winning their first two USPHL games of the season, Portland has gone 0-4-1. Four of the five losses have been by two or fewer goals. Offensively, Cam Loughlin is setting the pace with six points. In the crease, the Pirates have used three goaltenders and are looking for one to take the reigns of starter.

9) Walpole Express (2-2-1-0) - Slotted into the EHL’s Central Division, the Express have yet to put a winning or losing streak together and the squad has suffered through inconsistency. Frankie Cefalu is at the top of the team’s points race with seven points in five games. The goaltending duties have been split between Kyle Shapiro and Evan McCarthy.

10) Northern Cyclones (2-0-0-0) - Northern has played two EHL games. They have scored 13 goals and given up only two. Christopher Zuccaro (Hudson, NH) has registered eight points in those two games to take the team points leads. Brendan Tidman (Townsend, Mass.) and Evan Morelli (Reading, Mass.) have appeared in one game each.  

11) Connecticut Yankees (1-2-0-0) - The expansion Yankees have shown that they will compete in the USPHL but they need to receive consistent goaltending to do so. Braden Quast and Dan Broderick lead the club with three points each. Steve Thulin (N. Reading, Mass.) and Bruce Racine have shared the puck stopping roles.

12) Hartford Jr. Wolfpack (1-1-0-0) - Both of Hartford’s tilts were settled by one goal. Scoring could be an issue for this EHL club. Dylan Vander Esch’s four assists leads the points category while goaltender Scott Brown will see the bulk of the action this season.

13) Valley Jr. Warriors (1-3-0-0) - A junior hockey power last season, the Warriors have struggled as members of the EHL. Christian Elsborg has accumulated four points on the young season. Netminder Matt Penta (Waltham, Mass.) has appeared in three of the team’s four matches.

14) Boston Jr. Rangers (0-3-0-0) - Offensively, the EHL’s Jr. Rangers have scored just four goals in three games. Defensively, the club has given up 14 lamplighters. This could be a long season for the Tewksbury, Mass.- based team. Michael Bears (Londonderry, NH) is the squad’s leading scorer with two points. Goaltenders Zach Rondo (S. Hadley, Mass.) and Matthew Beliveau (Goffstown, NH) have faced a barrage of shots and could be the busiest puck stoppers in the league this season.

Twitter: @ShawnHutcheon
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