Last year's Buffalo Bandits lived what Charles Dickens wrote in 1859 to start "A Tale of Two Cities": It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The Bandits are coming off a dream season that ended with a nightmarish performance in the Champion's Cup final.
"Your goal at the beginning of the season is to get a home playoff game, then another, then be able to host the championship game," said goaltender Steve Dietrich, reflecting on the 16-9 loss to the Colorado Mammoth before 16,104 in HSBC Arena. "Everything seemed to be where we wanted it to be, then the clock struck midnight one night early."
The Bandits rolled to an 11-5 record and won both the National Lacrosse League's East Division regular-season and playoff titles before stumbling in the finale. Last season marked the second time in three years the Bandits reached the title game, yet their championship drought still dates to 1996.
Here's what to look for in 2007.
No team in the league plays better, or more physical, defense. The Bandits led the league and set a franchise record by yielding just 10.4 goals per contest. That's nearly three scores per game less than the season before fifth-year head coach Darris Kilgour returned to Buffalo, where he posted Hall of Fame numbers and won three championships as a pro following a storied scholastic career at Niagara-Wheatfield.
Dietrich, who enters his 15th season, became the first goalie to be named the league's most valuable player and the first to chalk up a save percentage of 80 or better. He went 10-4 with a league-best 9.97 goals against average, in addition to stopping a record-setting 80.8 percent of the shots he faced. He missed this season's opener, an 11-10 overtime loss at Portland, after having had a knee scoped in a clean-up procedure. Kilgour expects Dietrich to be ready for Friday night's 7:30 home opener against the New York Titans in HSBC Arena.
"I would love just one year to see us hold teams under 10," said captain Rich Kilgour, one of just two remaining original Bandits back for his 16th season. "It's very tough to do. Is it obtainable, who knows? But I think we can definitely be even better defensively than last year."
Veterans Kyle Couling, Chris White, Billy Dee Smith, Clay Hill, Kyle Laverty and Troy Bonterre anchor a group of hard-working and very physical defensemen who seldom allowed opponents to go on damaging runs last season. NLL teams averaged 11.27 goals per game and the Bandits held their foes under that mark 75 percent of the time.
Offensively, NLL career scoring leader John Tavares (32 goals, 53 assists, 85 points last season) -- the other original Bandit -- keeps defying Father Time. Tavares enters his 16th season without showing much wear and tear on his well-maintained, 38-year-old body. He no longer needs to carry the scoring load with teammates such as fast-breaking Mark Steenhuis (34-23-57) and youngsters Delby Powless (12-33-45), Roger Vyse (7-8-15 in just six games) and rookie Brett Bucktooth, who posted 312 points in 76 career games at Syracuse University.
That's not to mention veterans Jason Crosbie (18-37-55), Dan Teat (27-29-56) and Cory Bomberry (21-27-48).
"Now I don't feel the pressure to have to score four, five or six goals every night because it's so spread out now that you can't stop all of us," Tavares said. "It's tough to hold us."
Home attendance rose for the third straight year, to 12,163 per game in the 18,690-seat arena. In 2003, Darris Kilgour's first season behind the Buffalo bench, the Bandits averaged just 7,002. Fans are undoubtedly attracted by the 42-22 regular-season record and four consecutive playoff berths his team has accomplished since his return.
When you play physically, penalties are a natural result. No team gave up more power-play goals (54) or opportunities (132). Though it didn't exact a toll during the regular season, the championship game was a fiasco with Colorado scoring on six of 10 power-play chances compared to 0 for 1 for the Bandits. They must be more careful this season as the league has implemented tougher rules regarding contact to the head.
The Bandits were last in faceoffs for the third consecutive season, winning just 40.6 percent of their draws. That enabled the dominant faceoff teams like Colorado and the Philadelphia Wings to monopolize the ball for long stretches.
Darris Kilgour also admits maybe the Bandits were a little too fast for their own good, at least when they had the ball.
"One thing we want to improve is our offensive control," he said. "Less quick shots and more set plays. We ran around a lot off the ball last year and that's good. But when you move without a purpose sometimes you're cutting into the one-on-one play. We want to give each other a chance to work as individuals once in a while."
This year's schedule is a killer, particularly early. The season began on a downer two weeks ago in Portland against the LumberJax, the other 11-5 team from last year. Portland finished first in the West. Seven of the first 11 games are on the road, including a Saturday trip to Denver for a title game rematch with the Mammoth, just hours after the Bandits play their home opener.
The Bandits made few changes. Kevin Dostie (18-20-38), a summertime teammate of Tavares' in the Ontario Lacrosse Association, was obtained from Calgary. Rugged and talented Tony Henderson (3-3-6 with Minnesota) had 31 goals and 51 points with the Philadelphia Wings in 2003; he was signed as a free agent and could be a steal in his seventh NLL season. Bucktooth, who went to three Final Fours and won a championship at Syracuse, is being counted on to contribute immediately. Dietrich has a new backup in Mike Thompson, who hadn't played in an NLL game since 2001 but was plenty sharp with 40 saves against Portland.
It's no accident that this year's cast remains virtually the same as last year's.
"We're very happy with our team and the chemistry we developed last year," said Darris Kilgour, whose roster includes six players with at least 10 years of NLL experience. "I really do think we have one of the best mixes of younger and older guys."
Dietrich expects more pressure, and better results.
"I've been in this league 15 years now, and I don't know how much longer I've got to play," he said. "Or Richie. Or Johnny. I think a lot of us have to look at this as the last kick at the can. If we can all come back again [in 2008] that will be a blessing.
"But this might be it, so it would be a shame 20 years down the road to look back at this group of guys who have been so good over a six-year period but have never won a championship. That's what makes it so important that we really focus, on every game, on every practice. That's how you win championships. There are no shortcuts."