Bandits' unlikely journey at crossroads They need win to join improbable Final 4

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How would you like to be the official oddsmaker for the American Hockey League playoffs?

No matter what happens tonight when the Bandits and Syracuse Crunch meet in Game 7 of their unfathomable series at the Baltimore Arena, the four survivors in the semifinal round of the run for the Calder Cup are going to look like something the cat dragged in.

Rochester, third-place finisher in the Central Division, awaits the victor of the Bandits and Crunch, who finished seventh and eighth in the Western Conference standings. And Saint John is set to take on Portland after they finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.

List the 18 teams of the AHL in order of finish and the final four breaks down to No. 7 vs. No. 13 and No. 9 taking on either No. 14 or No. 16. Only one in the cast -- Saint John -- had a winning record, and that was by one game (35-34-11).

As Baltimore captain Dwayne Norris has been saying since the tournament started, "It's been an up-and-down season for a lot of teams all year, not only game-by-game but shift-by-shift. Play hard right to the end and you never know what might happen."

The Bandits are an excellent example of what sticking with it can lead to:

It took the team six weeks to win its first game on the road and it languished in the cellar of the Southern Division for months.

The Bandits faced a fifth and deciding game in the first round of the playoffs on the road (Hershey) and trailed by two goals late in the second period before winning in overtime.

They fell behind Syracuse 3-1 before winning Games 5 and 6, hammering the Crunch, 7-1, up there Sunday.

This list, which could go on until Father's Day, doesn't even touch upon the midseason morass that saw the team sold.

It was about a month before the end of the regular season when Baltimore coach Walt Kyle looked at his roster and said, "If we could get another defenseman and a consistent forward or two, we would not only make the playoffs but do some winning there, too."

A week didn't go by before the Bandits lost their best two defenders, and what help was forthcoming to the offense was negated immediately by injuries.

These things happen to all franchises serving as feeders for NHL teams, of course, so perhaps the truest test of the teams that survive is how well they make do with what players are at hand.

At one time or another, Kyle has cited about 90 percent of his players as missing in action, contributing nothing, being overmatched or forgetting that a huge portion of this game is mental. At the same time, though, he'll defend his troops as "doing an excellent job climbing out of the hole we were in halfway through the season."

Not wanting to give the impression that he has gone soft, he will quickly add, "actually, we haven't accomplished much by simply making it to the second round."

A win tonight, however, would change that, especially considering the grit the club has shown getting this far. Three wins in overtime in as many tries during the postseason is storybook stuff. Rookie defensemen with virtually no AHL experience stepping in and doing creditable work in the playoffs is no everyday occurrence. Tying your hopes to one goaltender for a never-ending season just isn't done.

Except, obviously, in a league where three of the four division champions were bounced by No. 4 seeds in the first round and the other went out in the second.

Game 7. Has a great ring to it, doesn't it? "If we don't win, none of this matters," said Kyle, to the end a brutal realist.

NOTE: Mike Maneluk (broken nose, fractured optic bone) and Dave Sacco (Achilles' tendon) skated during an optional practice and there's at least a chance they may see some action tonight.

Pub Date: 5/14/96

Bandits tonight

Game 7, AHL Western Conference semifinal series

Opponent: Syracuse Crunch

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7

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

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