If the Buffalo Bandits hit the ground running and finish strong they'll virtually assure themselves of a fourth consecutive visit to the National Lacrosse League playoffs.
Perhaps the five most important dates on the 16-game 2006 regular-season schedule, which was announced Tuesday, come at the beginning and at the end -- all against East Division foes. This season four of the five teams in the East will qualify for the postseason as the playoff field has been expanded from six to eight.
The Bandits, who went 11-5 last season, start their 15th season with a home-and-home series against the defending champion Toronto Rock -- Jan. 13 in the Air Canada Centre and the home opener at HSBC Arena on Jan. 14. The Bandits have won three of their last four games in Toronto but have lost eight of their last nine at home against the Rock.
Game Three is Jan. 28 at Rochester, where the Bandits are just 3-10 all-time. The Rock (12-4), Bandits and Knighthawks (10-6) were the East's playoff participants last season, and Buffalo's season ended with a quarterfinal playoff loss to Rochester at home.
The Philadelphia Wings (6-10), who have missed the playoffs the last three seasons despite four victories over the Bandits during that span, close the season with a home-and-home set against Buffalo, April 14 at HSBC Arena and the next night in the First Union Center.
Buffalo meets all four division rivals, including the second-year Minnesota Swarm, three times apiece. Toronto and Minnesota visit HSBC Arena twice while the Bandits travel to Rochester and Philadelphia twice. The remaining four games are against foes from the West Division -- at home against the expansion Portland LumberJax (Feb. 10) and the Colorado Mammoth (April 8) and on the road against the San Jose Stealth (March 31) and defending division champion Arizona Sting (April 1), the third of four weekends with back-to-back games but the only one where both games are away from HSBC Arena.
By the time Portland comes to Buffalo, 24-year-old LumberJax owner Angela Batinovitch may be a television celebrity. Three networks are reportedly considering whether to pick up a reality show based on the youngest female owner in the history of American professional sports.
"I'll put myself out there for the good of the league. I guess it's a good story, me being a chick owner," she recently told the Edmonton Sun.
The LumberJax are coached by Derek Keenan, who won championships as a player with the Bandits in 1992 and '93.
The Mammoth, beginning its fourth season in Denver, will make its first appearance in Buffalo. Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour piloted the Washington Power in 2001 and '02 but rather than move to the Rocky Mountains with the team, he took the Buffalo job before the '03 season.