Cole Makar led the Brooks Bandits blueline in scoring with 24 goals and 75 points in 54 games. In the playoffs, he added another five goals and 17 points in 13 games. The Bandits open the Western Canada Cup in Penticton on April 29 at 2 p.m. against the Chilliwack Chiefs. Emily Duncan/Brooks Bandits

Bandits ride in as Canada’s best

It has been a season of unexpected things for the Brooks Bandits.

It has been a season of unexpected things for the Brooks Bandits.

The first was finishing the regular season ranked as the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s No. 1 team with 51 wins.

“I think our group came together real quickly. I think we learned our style of play much faster than our staff thought we would,” said Bandits head coach-GM Ryan Papaioannou, whose team captured the Alberta Junior Hockey League championship after sweeping the Whitecourt Wolverines.

The Bandits were the top team in the AJHL from start to finish, capturing the regular season title with a 51-5-4 record for 106 points. They also led the AJHL with most goals for and fewest goals against. By defeating the Wolverines early last week for their second consecutive AJHL championship, their fourth in franchise history, they punched their ticket into the 2017 Western Canada Cup being hosted in Penticton.

“It was different than expected. We had a heck of a lot of respect for Whitecourt and their staff and their players,” he said. We didn’t expect to win it in a sweep. I think we had a really great Game 1, which maybe surprised them a little bit. The next three games were really tight. We played good hockey without the puck.

“I think it’s exciting. We have 17 players (12 are rookies) on our roster that are new from last season,” said Papaioannou, who is in his eighth season behind the Bandits bench. “I think for those guys it’s exciting to win their first championship. I think for our returning players maybe a little unexpected just in terms of that turnover.”

The Bandits are an offensive team that also focuses on defence and strong goaltending. Mitchel Benson was third in the CJHL with a 1.73 goals against average and .929 save percentage with 36 wins. The defence likes to get involved in offence and they are able to roll four lines.

“We had a lot of good contributions from our returning players,” he said. “I think that was a big key. The guys that came back, definitely carried the culture forward and they made a huge impact on our new players.”

The returning group includes defencemen Charlie Marchand (committed to Bentley University, National Collegiate Athletic Association Div. 1), Joe O’Connor (committed to Quinnipiac, NCAA Div. 1) and Cale Makar (committed to Massachusetts, NCAA Div.1 ), who racked up 24 goals and 75 points in 54 games and at forward, Tyrell Mappin, who led the team with 90 points in 56 regular season games, Josh McKechney (committed to Colgate University, NCAA Div. 1) and racked up 51 assists and 67 points in 60 regular season games, Parker Foo (committed to Union College, NCAA Div. 1), and Nick Prkusic (committed to Robert Morris University, NCAA Div. 1). He put up 58 points in 42 games.

When it comes to the 2017 Western Canada Cup, Papaioannou said it isn’t necessarily about competing for that championship. It’s about competing for one of the two RBC Cup berths.

“It’s our third time at the WCC so I think we’ve learned that we don’t need to be the best team all week long,” said Papaioannou, whose team will play the Penticton Vees on April 30 at 7 p.m. in the South Okanagan Events Centre. “We just need to be the best team come the weekend. We need to be good enough to get to the weekend. That’s where we need to play our best hockey. It’s exciting to play against other champions and regardless of Chilliwack and Penticton, either one of them could be a champion. It’s going to be five real quality teams.”

Last year the Bandits advanced to the RBC Cup national championship, before losing out in the semifinal.

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