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Bandits trying to stay alive

Here's the good news about the Buffalo Bandits: They could clinch a spot in the National Lacrosse League's playoffs tonight if games break the right way.

Here's the bad news: They still have a good-sized chance of being the one team out of nine that is forced to sit out the postseason.

That's the story in a nutshell as the Bandits (5-9) host the Rochester Knighthawks (6-8) tonight in First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network, Radio 1520 AM). There's still time for the Bandits to salvage one of the most disappointing seasons in their history, but they are fighting for their postseason lives in the meantime.

"It's insane," defender Billy Dee Smith said about his team's season. "I've been here 10 years, and I've never had a season like this. You know you're good, and you've proven it. But for some weird reason, you can't do it consistently enough. It's tough because you spent half the time wondering why you can't do it consistently, and the other time trying to do it consistently. So you just keep working hard. That's all you can do."

The NLL compares the fourth-place team in the East to the fifth-place team in the West in the "crossover" playoff format. The team with the worse record sits out the postseason.

The first piece of the Bandits' puzzle came late Friday night. The Washington Stealth (4-10) hosted the Toronto Rock in a game that ended too late for this edition. If the Stealth lost that game, Buffalo only needs to defeat the Knighthawks tonight to clinch a playoff spot.

If something else happens, then we'll have to wait until next week to see how the playoff race shakes out. There are all sorts of scenarios involved, including one in which the Bandits could actually win the division with two wins while both Toronto and Philadelphia are losing their last two games.

But one possible outcome is particularly chilling from a Buffalo point of view. The Bandits play the Stealth in Washington to close the regular season next week. Under certain circumstances, the winner would make the playoffs; the loser would be done for the season.

"Look at both of those teams, and they are both underachieving this year," Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis said. "You don't want to leave it to the end. We want to win out. The team that gets hot at the end can take it into the playoffs."

Edmonton clinched a spot in the postseason in the West late Friday night with a 14-11 victory over Colorado.

There's something else to consider when pondering the Bandits' situation: injuries. They have started to pile up at the worst possible time. Goalie Mike Thompson suffered a knee injury last week in a loss in Edmonton and was scheduled for more tests.

"He's definitely out this weekend. We'll find out later if he can come back for the rest of the year," coach Darris Kilgour said.

Darryl Gibson was injured early in the Edmonton game as well, and is not expected to be ready for the weekend. Steve Priolo has been diagnosed with mononucleosis, and probably is done for the year. Tracey Kelusky (Achilles) practiced Tuesday night but is still questionable.

Meanwhile, Brandon Francis is looking at a three-game suspension from the league due to an illegal high stick last week against Edmonton. The Bandits have a decision to make there.

"Do we appeal one of those games and get him back for a game in the regular season? If we do we might lose him for some playoff games," Kilgour said. "We have to play who is healthy, play who is available. It's gone from one of the easiest coaching seasons to one of the toughest."

With Thompson injured, the Bandits probably would like to bring up Angus Goodleaf from the practice squad to take Thompson's spot and be the backup goalie to Anthony Cosmo tonight. Yet they might have to release a player in order to make room for him on the active roster. It's not an easy situation.

"Our hands have been tied for a month now," Kilgour said about the roster.

The Bandits have only themselves to blame for this. Their nine losses guaranteed them of finishing with a losing record for the first time since 1999.

"It doesn't sit well at all," Smith said. "But if we make a good run at the playoffs, no one will remember that we had a losing season. We're going to have a losing season, but we still could win a championship."

The thought of missing the playoffs should offer plenty of motivation as well. The Bandits haven't gone home at the end of the regular season since 2002.

"It would be heartbreaking," Smith said about the idea of not qualifying for the postseason. "You don't want to think about it, but we'll try our damnedest to try to make sure it doesn't happen."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com