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VICTORY WOULD PUT BANDITS BACK ON TRACK

Opportunity knocks again for the Buffalo Bandits.

If they can beat the Rochester Knighthawks tonight (7:30 p.m., Radio 550) in HSBC Arena, they'll:

Put themselves on the cusp of a third consecutive playoff appearance and the 11th in the franchise's 14-year history.

Be in the driver's seat to host a first-round playoff game.

End a two-game losing streak against National Lacrosse League East Division foes.

Have defeated a team with a winning record on their home turf for the first time in nearly 14 months.

Won a season series against the Knighthawks -- who joined the league in 1995 -- for the first time ever.

Atone for perhaps the worst regular season defeat in their history.

Other than that, there's not much riding on this clash between Thruway rivals.

"We have a saying before every game that this is the biggest game so far," said Bandits captain Rich Kilgour. "And this one with Rochester really is."

The Bandits (8-5) and Knighthawks (8-5) are tied for second behind the Toronto Rock (8-3). Should the Bandits win, they would reduce their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to one. That means one win in the last two games or one loss by the Philadelphia Wings (6-6) in their final four. The combination of a Buffalo win tonight and a Toronto win at Philadelphia Saturday night would sew up a playoff spot this weekend.

Because head-to-head record is the tie-breaker, the winner of tonight's game really wins twice and the loser bows twice. The season series is tied at 1-1 and this is the final meeting. So the victor, in reality, holds a two-game lead over the loser with just two games remaining for both teams.

Two weeks ago, the Bandits controlled their destiny. But that was before a historic 12-11 loss in Rochester and a 12-8 home defeat against Toronto.

"Anytime you have a little lull in your own play, you're going to get beat," said Bandits General Manager Kurt Silcott. "We have to put those two behind us and not dwell on it."

Easier said than done, at least regarding the March 19 loss to the Knighthawks. In 181 regular season and playoff games prior to then, the Bandits had never lost a game they led by more than four. But Rochester rallied from an 8-2 second-quarter deficit.

"Six goals in the first half is probably like 4-2 after the second period in hockey," said Knighthawks coach Paul Day. "I think we once came back from a 10-1 deficit against New York to win, so we knew there was enough time."

Of the 15 games the Bandits have lost in their history after holding a lead of three goals or more, five have occurred against the Knighthawks. And three have taken place since the teams last met in Buffalo, on Feb. 6, 2004 -- also the last time the Bandits beat a winning team at home.

The last five games in this series were in Rochester -- a pair of four-goal Buffalo victories and three overtime wins by the Knighthawks. Rochester leads the rivalry, 16-8, and the Bandits have never been able to do better than split a season series.

"Our home record has been nothing to brag about this year and that's something you need," said Bandits midfielder Mark Steenhuis. "You want people to fear coming into your barn and right now we haven't put that fear into our opponents. They come in here and think they can walk all over us. We have to stand our ground."

Day says he'll start Pat O'Toole in goal, though the Knighthawks began their rally in the last meeting when Pat Campbell replaced O'Toole with his team down by six. Campbell completely stifled the Buffalo offense the rest of the way.

"Pat (O'Toole) has had some of his best games in HSBC Arena," Day said. "We're going with him."

Said Bandits leading scorer John Tavares: "They want to make sure they establish that No. 1 goalie and not leave anything up in the air. Good teams have an established No. 1 and Patty's their guy."

O'Toole, who backstopped the 1996 championship team and went 13-5 as a Bandit from 1996-98, has owned his former team. He's 10-5 against them in the regular season but has lost in his last three trips to Buffalo.

"We have to prove we can win a big game in our place," Silcott said. "We have to make HSBC Arena our house again."
e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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