If the Buffalo Bandits are going to advance in the National Lacrosse League playoffs this year, they’ll have to earn it.
The Rochester Knighthawks are in their way. The two teams will meet in the first round of the postseason Friday night. The winner of the game advances to the East Division final against Toronto, and the loser goes home.
The Knighthawks are by one standard the greatest dynasty in the history of the league. No team had won three straight championships before Rochester did it last year. Now the Knighthawks are going after four straight titles, and the Bandits would like nothing better than to spoil that dream.
“If you’re going to beat any team, it would be special to beat them,” Buffalo defender Billy Dee Smith said. “They are the reigning champs. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
“There are no surprises between the teams. Whoever sticks to the systems and does what they do well will win.”
Rochester went 7-9 in 2012 and 8-8 in 2013, but staged surprising playoff runs to win the Champion’s Cup. The Knighthawks were 14-4 in last year’s regular season, and went on to beat the Bandits in the division final and Calgary in the championship round. The routes have been different, but Brad Self of the Knighthawks sees similarities in those teams.
“Our strongest point is to be hungry,” he said. “That’s our biggest asset. They push each other to be better. It’s nice that we’ve won those three, but we can’t sit back. We’re not going to win if we sit back and think teams will roll over.”
Speaking of different routes, the Bandits’ outlook is entirely different than the one most people had about them entering the 2014 playoffs. Buffalo had lost its last eight games of the regular season last year to stagger home with an 8-10 record. No one expected much from the Bandits in the postseason. Yet they beat the Rock in Toronto, and took the Knighthawks to overtime in a minigame before finally exiting.
This time, the Bandits are flying into the postseason with a four-game winning streak (albeit all against non-playoff teams) and an 11-7 record.
“Either way, it’s a new season,” assistant coach Dan Teat said. “You have to put things behind you. You can’t drag your head after losing a few. You don’t want to be too high after you’ve won some games, and assume you’ll go in and score.”
Buffalo’s offense certainly is the big reason why the team has a good-sized chance of knocking off the defending champs. The Bandits scored 236 goals this season, which works out to an average of 13.1 goals per game. Buffalo hasn’t reached that number since averaging 13.9 goals per game in 2009.
The Bandits scored a total of 57 goals in their final three games. No Buffalo squad has reached that figure since the 2009 team also scored 57 goals over three consecutive games.
However, Rochester does have someone who can slow the Bandits down. Matt Vinc is considered the best goaltender in the league.
“Big players play in big games, and Matt Vinc is no exception,” said Buffalo forward Ryan Benesch. “The playoffs are a time to elevate your game another step, and he always seems to do that. It will be on us to do that as a team. If we do that, we’ve got a shot at winning.”
Rochester won all three meetings between the teams in the regular season, but it’s tough to know how meaningful that is. All were close games in the fourth quarter; the Knighthawks dominated the last 15 minutes in two of them and went to overtime to win the third. Cody Jamieson had 21 points for Rochester in those three games.
“Cody is the best player in the world,” Smith said. “I don’t know if he decides to turn it on, or if that’s just the way it happens. We have to do better in recognizing where Cody is in the last five minutes of the game. Even if he doesn’t have any goals, he could be waiting for that moment to shine.”
Hamburg’s Joe Resetarits has switched sides in the rivalry since those regular season games. He was traded by the Bandits to the Knighthawks, and has 27 points in seven games.
“Joe has been dynamite,” Rochester coach Mike Hasen said. “He’s a great little player. He works hard, doesn’t need the ball in his stick. He’s been a great fit, and he looks like he’s been here for years.”
Mix in the fact that the Bandits often have plenty of fans in the stands when they play in Rochester, and this game has the makings of a fascinating matchup.
“It’s definitely something the boys are excited about,” Benesch said.