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Win is crucial in tight NLL East race

For those who don't like the look of the standings in the National Lacrosse League's East Division, wait a minute. They'll probably change.

The Buffalo Bandits beat Rochester, 14-7, here on Saturday night, and moved from fifth place -- out of the playoffs -- into a tie for second. The Bandits are 6-6, the same as Toronto and Boston. Orlando has the division lead at 7-4, while Rochester now is looking up at the four playoff spots at 5-6.

In other words, bad things can happen in a hurry when you lose.

"Any league where there are a limited number of games, the last few games are like playoff games," Toronto General Manager Terry Sanderson said. "We're all in the race. Every team has a goal to make the playoffs and secure a seeding. With the division the way it is, and everyone still in the hunt, you can't have any off weeks.

"We're playing a lot of division games down the stretch. If you give a division team a win, you put a win in their column and a loss in your column. It's like the first part of the playoffs. You'll see the intensity of the league increase for the next month."

Orlando beat Toronto on Saturday night, while last-place Philadelphia surprised Boston. Blazers coach Tom Ryan might have been tempted to look at the out-of-town scoreboard during that loss to see how the rest of the division was faring.

"You definitely are interested in what other teams are doing," Ryan said. "You definitely are keeping an eye on other teams. It's a testament to the division that it's so exciting and it's a great race to the playoffs."

The NLL East featured some close races last year as well. Buffalo, Boston and New York all finished with a 10-6 record, with the Bandits losing first place to the Titans on a tiebreaker. Rochester and Philadelphia finished at 7-9, and the Knighthawks gained the last playoff spot on a tiebreaker.

With so much at stake in every game, Rochester coach Paul Gait knows this is not the time for a bad game -- which his team had against the Bandits on Saturday.

"It's a lot more work," he said about coaching in this situation. "You can't rest. You constantly have to get better and compete in the next game. There's no cushion. Every game is like a playoff game. You have to approach it that way."

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The Bandits were missing their top goaltender again on Saturday. Ken Montour missed his third straight game. Montour is still suffering from the effects of a concussion, which took place earlier in the season.

That means Mike Thompson got the start again against Rochester. Thompson may have played his best lacrosse in almost two seasons two weeks ago when he was in goal for back-to-back wins over Toronto and Boston. But he was very solid against the Knighthawks as well.

"Mike deserves everything he's gotten," Buffalo forward Mark Steenhuis said. "We really need him to come through."

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Knighthawks goalie Pat O'Toole broke the all-time NLL record for career saves by a goalie entering Saturday's game. He went into the contest with 6,356 saves, tied with Hall of Famer Dallas Eliuk.

It wasn't a good night otherwise for O'Toole, who was benched for part of the game after a slow start. He gave up three goals in the first seven minutes.

"That was huge," Steenhuis said. "In the past, we've seen what a difference he can make in this building when he stops the first five or 10 shots."

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com

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