If the degree of improvement shown by the Baltimore Bandits in 72 hours between exhibition games with Hershey is any indication, watch out Southern Division of the American Hockey League.
The Bandits looked no part of a team that is technically described as an expansion team by the AHL as they outskated the Bears much of last night. A late collapse, however, saw Hershey score three times in the last five minutes to make off with a 4-3 triumph.
Until the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't ending, a highly appreciative crowd of 4,934 had the Baltimore Arena rocking.
Even though most of the Bandits weren't aware of the long-standing rivalry between the city and Hershey, they joined right in the fisticuffs as penalty minutes rumbled past an hour and a half and four game misconducts were handed out.
Someone suggested that here the regular season was still six days in the future and the teams already were in midseason form.
Thumped convincingly, 6-1, in Hershey last Wednesday, Baltimore sent eight new players out to oppose the Bears and the difference was marked.
Jarrod Skalde and Mike Maneluk were particularly impressive for the home team, combining for the Bandits' three goals. But it was their speed, stick-handling ability and versatility that had local fans enthused.
Knotted at a goal apiece after the first 40 minutes, Maneluk put Baltimore ahead early in the third period when he stole the puck as the Bears mounted a power play and, despite a defender hanging all over him, beat Hershey goalie Les Kuntar.
Skalde scored his second goal at the midpoint of the period, and Baltimore seemed to be home free with a 3-1 margin. Then the hockey version of the prevent defense reared its ugly head.
First, Patrice Paquin scored with 4:33 remaining to narrow Hershey's deficit to 3-2. The Bandits then put the visitors on the power play -- in the last two minutes? -- and Todd Nelson made them pay with a tying goal.
Mike McHugh, following sloppy puck handling in the neutral zone, suddenly flashed in on goal to win it with just 20 seconds remaining.