Buffalo Bandits fans might receive two games for the price of one on Saturday night in First Niagara Center. However, none of them will be hoping for a bargain.
That’s the odd situation created by the National Lacrosse League’s unique playoff system.
The Bandits defeated the Black Wolves in New England in Game One of the NLL East final on Monday night. Now Buffalo has two chances to advance to the NLL final for the first time since 2008.
That win could come in a 60-minute game at the start of the evening (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM). If New England wins that game, the series will be decided by a 10-minute “mini-game” that immediately follows the first game.
“Hopefully we can win it in 60 minutes,” Buffalo assistant coach Rich Kilgour said. “We’ve been pretty resilient this season. But if it goes to a mini-game, we still will have confidence we can win.”
The Bandits have been through the mini-game experience once before. Two years ago, Buffalo won the opening game of the series against Rochester at home, but a week later dropped the regulation game to set up the 10-minute contest to see which team advanced. The tension in the building was almost unbearable for all concerned.
Buffalo took an early 1-0 lead on Joe Resetarits’ goal, and almost added to it on a Derek Suddons breakaway.
“Believe me, I can still see the ball hitting the end of” Rochester goalie “Matt Vinc’s stick,” Kilgour said.
The Knighthawks tied the game in the final three minutes of play, and won it on a goal by Cory Vitarelli 1:56 into overtime. That series was a reminder that the first game, while nice to win, may not mean much. Both sides realize that one bad night can end a season.
“I don’t know if there’s an advantage in this league,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said about playing Game Two at home. “The parity is so tight. We have a long way to go. This is an extremely talented team that we’re playing.”
“The message to the team doesn’t really change,” Black Wolves coach Glenn Clark said. “We still had to go into Buffalo and win a game, so we’re really not in a different position other than that if we won that second game we wouldn’t have to play the mini-game.”
The Bandits have a couple of obvious reasons for feeling good about their chances on Saturday night. The first is the game’s location.
Buffalo has been on a nice roll at home this season. It is 8-1 for the season at First Niagara Center, including a current streak of five straight wins. In those five games, the Bandits have averaged 14.5 goals per game and allowed 11.1 goals per game. The only close contest came on April 9, a 14-12 win over Rochester that came down to the last two minutes.
Buffalo has averaged 17,358 fans per game during this home winning streak.
“We’re excited about the home games,” Dhane Smith of the Bandits said. “The fans have been great about supporting us throughout the year.”
The Black Wolves have the same reaction when it comes playing before a big crowd, even if only a few fans are likely to be rooting for them.
“Banditland is Banditland,” New England assistant coach and former Buffalo player Tracey Kelusky said. “When it’s rocking and the team is playing well, it’s a tough spot to get a win. But I think the guys get excited about going there. They are professional lacrosse players, and that’s the spot where you want to play. Playing in front of a crowd like that, with its enthusiasm and knowledge, is great.”
While a home-field advantage is always nice, the Bandits have been playing well just about everywhere for almost three months. They are 10-1 in their last 11 games.
“It’s like the old line in ‘Bull Durham’ – winning is so much better than losing,” Kilgour said. “It’s a great ride, and it’s all on the players. They have to buy in and execute. You can have the best plan in the world, but they have to buy it.
“It’s been a great run. We win, forget about it, and move on.”
Two hours after the Bandits and Black Wolves start playing, the Saskatchewan Rush and Calgary Roughnecks will begin Game Two of their series in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Rush lead, 1-0. By midnight we should know which two teams will play for the NLL Championship, starting next weekend. In other words, this is not the time for any team to take anything for granted.