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How the Bandits can secure top seed for NLL postseason

When the Buffalo Bandits start singing, it’s music to assistant coach Rich Kilgour’s ears − even if it’s off-key.

“After a game, we have a little huddle,” Kilgour said. “The guys have a song that they sing after a win. The words are not eligible for print, but it was done with extra vigor last week.

“It was a great feeling to finally go into Rochester last week and beat them. We’ve had some terrible losses there, even going back to when I played.”

The victory over the Knighthawks has given the Bandits a great deal of confidence. They will need it when they play the New England Black Wolves at at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Radio 930 AM) at First Niagara Center in what should be a dramatic conclusion to the regular season.

The playoff situation in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division is complicated, yet the task for the Bandits is straight-forward. If they win on Saturday, they will take first place in the division, earn a first-round bye and have the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Buffalo (12-5) could win the division even with a loss, provided New England (10-6) loses to Rochester on Sunday night. But the Bandits aren’t focusing on that possibility.

“We had practice Tuesday night, and we just wanted to get the point across that while this is a big game, we treat all the games the same,” Kilgour said. “If we had won both of the Toronto games, this wouldn’t be such a big game. We tell them, ‘Don’t let what this game means affect you. You don’t focus on your job that way. If you play to your ability, and if you play hard and smart, this will take care of itself.’”

If the Bandits finish second, they would host a first-round playoff game in a week or so. That’s a one-game series, while the division final is a best-of-two (mini-game if necessary) and the NLL finals are best-of-three.

While Buffalo and New England have secured playoff spots, the third one is still up for grabs. Georgia (7-10) can qualify with a win over Vancouver. Rochester (6-10) needs the Swarm to lose to the Stealth, and must beat Saskatchewan at home on Saturday and New England on the road on Sunday.

All that gives the Knighthawks’ slim hopes of returning to the postseason. The standings in the NLL East have scrambled in a year.

“Last year, who would have thought Rochester and Toronto would be the two teams out of the playoffs? Both of them might be on the outside looking in,” Kilgour said. “The Rock could go from 14-4 to 5-13. You never know what can happen.”

Speaking of surprises, New England might be the biggest one of all. The Black Wolves were 4-14 in 2015. Now they are four games above .500.

The biggest reason for the turnaround has been the play of Shawn Evans, who was acquired from Calgary in the offseason. Evans comes into the game with 117 points, second in the league. He has teamed up with Kevin Crowley and Pat Saunders to form an excellent offensive nucleus.

“I see him in the summertime, and I’ve been going up against him for more than a decade,” Kilgour said. “He’s 5-8, 175, and you think, ‘Let’s go knock him around,’ but you can’t do it. He has this determination that is top-notch.

“He’s a handful. He gets under people’s skin, and he’s a great all-around player. ... We’ll have our hands full. He’s on our radar, but he finds a way to get around it.”

New England’s transformation normally would have Evans as a top candidate for NLL Most Valuable Player honors, but the favorite’s role there has gone to Dhane Smith of the Bandits. Last week, Smith broke Evans’ record for points in an NLL season with 131. The Bandits’ standout has another major record directly ahead of him. He needs three goals to tie Athan Iannucci’s NLL single-season mark of 71 goals.

And here’s the scary part for opponents: Smith is 23 years old. He figures to get better.

“Shawn Evans didn’t have these kinds of years until he was 27 or 28,” Kilgour said. “It’s really incredible. We saw the talent level; that’s why he was drafted No. 5 overall. But to expect him to be the leading scorer in the league at 23 - there’s no way you could have seen this coming.

“I can’t stress enough how unselfish he is. He lets the game come to him. If they are going to play him one-on-one, he’ll get his shot. If you double him, he lets other guys do the job. To me, he’s up there with Paul and Gary Gait and John Tavares with the incredible year he’s had.”

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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