Tornado Drops Opening Round Series

The difference between winning
and losing in playoff hockey is as miniscule as a single whisker. But it comes
as small consolation that the Tornado came within a whisker of posting the
biggest upset in North American Hockey League playoff history (based on point
differential).

Despite taking a two-games-to-none lead on enemy ice against a second-seeded St. Louis Bandits squad that had amassed 35 more standings points, number three seed Texas dropped three straight one-goal verdicts to begin an unwanted early
summer.

Leading 2-1 in the final minute
of Game Five in St. Louis, the Texas was unable to clear the puck from their
defensive zone, and the Bandits’ Jordan Bourgonje scored from a scrum in front
of the Tornado net. Grant Gettinger ended Texas’s upset hopes when he scored
midway through the first overtime period to give the Bandits a 3-2 victory and
the series.

St. Louis will play Southern Division regular season champion
Topeka, with the winner advancing to the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament
in which the league’s four playoff division winner and the host Wenatchee
(Washington) Wild will play a four-game round robin format May 4-8.

“We had our chances to win, and
it’s frustrating that we didn’t, but we can look back on a very successful
season,” said Tornado Head Coach and General Manager Tony Curtale. “Our guys
were a bit down on the ride home (to Frisco in suburban Dallas, Texas),
obviously because we didn’t win. But in a lot of ways, we did a lot of good
things.

“During the regular season, I thought we outplayed some teams that may
have been better than us (on paper). And we have some good players coming back
next year. This was one of the most coachable groups of players I’ve ever had,
and we’re pleased and proud of that.”

One of Curtale’s standout
performers was goaltender Dan Sullivan,
Goalies’ World Magazine’s
number-one ranked goaltender in the NAHL who
during the regular season made a league-leading 1,575 saves. Sullivan remained
on his A-game against St. Louis, turning aside 185 of 195 Bandit shots, and
finishing the series with a sub 2.00 goals against average and a .949 save
percentage (besting his .912 during the regular season).

Sullivan stopped 76 of 79 shots
in leading the Tornado to victories in the first two games. He did his
impersonation of the China Wall in Game 1, smothering 40 shots, including 15 in
a dizzying but scoreless third period to earn the triumph. After
surrendering a pair of goals less than 9 minutes into the game, Dan slammed the
goalmouth door thereafter.

Offensively, forward James Howard
scored on a power play with less than five minutes remaining in the opening
period to cut the lead to 2-1. Nick Taurence tied the score early in the second stanza before Howard netted his second of the night with :03 left in
the middle frame to give Texas the lead for good, 3-2. The Tornado, which
managed only 13 shots in the game, killed off a 5-on-3 man disadvantage midway
through the third period.

In game Two, Howard again lit the
lamp on a first-period power play, and Shane Sooth made it 2-0 later
in the opening frame for an early Tornado lead. Sullivan surrendered his only
goal of the game on a power play midway through the third period
before Texas forward Jack Prince hit the empty net later in the session for a
3-1 Texas victory. Sullivan finished the game with 36 saves.  

St. Louis began its comeback in
Game Three when Cody Ganchar scored the contest’s only goal two minutes into the second period. Sullivan made 21 saves while the Bandits’ Tyler Bruggeman stopped 26.

Game Four turned into a classic display of hockey skills and desperation, with
players on both teams displaying tremendous resolve and discipline. St. Louis
evened the series midway through the third overtime when Joe Kalisz
scored his second goal of the game. Kalisz had opened the game’s scoring three
minutes into period one and Ryan Belonger gave the Bandits a 2-0 lead five
minutes into period two. But Tornado forward Axel Boyer put his team on the
scoreboard less than a minute later, and Justin Jones tied the score four
minutes into the third stanza. Sullivan finished the game with 51
saves, while Bruggeman stopped 45 shots.

“We have a few guys who are Division I
(college) hockey players, and whose names you’ll be hearing down the road,”
said Curtale. “Dan Sullivan, for sure, is a quality goaltender. At forward, I
think you’ll hear about Jack Prince, James Howard and Shane Sooth, and on defense
you’ll see names like Tyler Rostenkowski and Ralfs Freibergs.”

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