When the Toronto Rock players last left HSBC Arena, they felt nothing like the five-time National Lacrosse League champions they are.
After a 13-10 loss to the Buffalo Bandits on Jan. 21, the Rock was 0-4 and its postgame locker room was about as joyous as a dentist's waiting room.
"We were as down as we ever had been," said captain Jim Veltman.
So what's happened since?
"We woke up," Rock coach Terry Sanderson said, "and realized we are in a league, especially realized the equality of the league."
Winning has eased the memory of that morbid start, which included two losses to the Bandits. Toronto (6-5), which has won six of its last seven, travels back to Buffalo for tonight's 7:30 game (Radio 1520 AM) against the Bandits (4-3). Both teams are 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Rochester Knighthawks (7-3) in the East Division.
"They beat us twice and have the confidence that comes with that," said Veltman, who has won eight titles -- the first three as a Bandit in 1992, '93 and '96. "We're trying to reverse that. We feel we've made a lot of strides since those games."
The ramifications in the East are huge (the loser will be a .500 team), not to mention the effect on a possible playoff matchup down the line.
"They're a hot team and the defending champions," said Bandits forward John Tavares. "So we have a lot to prove."
The Bandits have clinched the three-game season series against the Rock franchise for the first time since it was born in 1998 as the Ontario Raiders. That gives Buffalo the postseason tie-breaker edge.
"Winning breeds confidence, it's as simple as that," said Rock forward Colin Doyle, the active career scoring leader against the Bandits with 37 goals and 96 points in 18 games. "There's a very good chance we may need to go through there in the playoffs, so we could gain a lot of confidence and momentum."
Toronto has never had much trouble playing at top speed in Buffalo. The Bandits are just 2-8 at home against the Rock compared to 4-4 in Toronto.
"It's probably because half of us grew up watching games there [Buffalo]," said Doyle, who grew up in Waterloo, Ont. and has four goals and 10 assists against the Bandits this season. "You know you're going to get a great test and I believe our mind-set is just really ready to play when we go there."
Toronto has done a good job limiting Tavares. He has five goals and 13 points against the Rock this season, but his career average against the team is 5.26 points. Only the Rochester Knighthawks (5.24) have done a slightly better job.
Goaltender Steve Dietrich has been superb against the Rock this season. He established a franchise record with 56 saves in the season opener, a 13-11 Buffalo victory at the Air Canada Centre, and added 39 a week later in the Bandits' home opener.
"We have to finish around the net better," said Rock forward Josh Sanderson, who has five goals and eight assists in the season series. "[Dietrich] has played very well against us but we have to bear down better."
Tonight is High School Spirit Night. All high school students who present valid school identifications will be able to purchase 300 level tickets for $9.85, a savings of more than $8 off the regular price. The offer is limited to two tickets per student. Students must present their school IDs at the HSBC Arena box office to receive the discounted price.