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Bandits enter a wide-open playoff tournament

Crystal ball sales are said to be up among those following the National Lacrosse League right now. It might be the only way to figure out just how the upcoming playoffs might take shape.

A legitimate case could be made that any of the eight teams that qualified for the postseason could get hot and win the championship.

"We've got eight teams, and all eight are a three-game winning streak from being a champion," Boston Blazers coach Matt Sawyer said.

The tournament starts tonight, as the Buffalo Bandits host the Blazers in HSBC Arena (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 930 AM and 107.7 FM). The Bandits finished first in the East Division while the Blazers were fourth, but that means little now -- especially in a "best-of-one" playoff format.

"I think obviously we've talked so much about parity in the league," Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis said. "Any team that sneaks into the playoffs has an opportunity to make it [to the title], whether you are sitting at one or at four in either division. It's tight. All season long, teams that are fourth and fifth [in the division] have been beating No. 1. It can happen. It's just a matter of who shows up at the right time."

The Bandits had a good season by any definition. They went 10-6 to win the East on tiebreakers with Toronto and Rochester. Buffalo was 8-4 in its own division, including two wins in three games against Boston.

Then again the Bandits closed with a thud. They lost their last two games, to Boston and Rochester, at home by wide margins. The home losing streak actually goes to three games, including an April 2 loss to Washington.

"I think we played well for 14 games," Buffalo defender Scott Self said. "We have to get back to playing the way we've been playing."

What was particularly disappointing about the last two losses was that the defense, which had been brilliant throughout the season, suffered a letdown. Buffalo set a team record for a 16-game season by allowing only 155 goals, and went nine straight games without allowing more than 10 goals. But the Bandits allowed a total of 31 goals in those last two losses.

"We'll definitely use what happened in the last two weeks and learn from it," Self said.

The Blazers aren't going to feel sorry for the Bandits, as they have had problems of their own. Entering 2011, many thought Boston was the team to beat in the NLL. The Blazers had added Casey Powell and Josh Sanderson to go along with veteran star Dan Dawson for what figured to be the best offense in the league.

Instead, Boston had a regular season to forget. After a 6-3 start, it lost five straight games in March and April to take itself out of the race for first in the East. That bad stretch included a stunning 19-8 thumping at the hands of Rochester. The Blazers beat Philadelphia, 9-7, on April 9 to clinch a playoff spot, and then blasted the Bandits, 16-9, in Buffalo.

"Everyone was surprised with their downward skid," Steenhuis said. "Hopefully we can send them on another one."

"We realize that no matter what we did in the regular season, we would be judged in the playoffs," the Blazers' Sawyer said. "If we were 16-0 and not successful in the playoffs, that season would be a failure. We realize the opportunity we have at hand. We have the chance to right the regular season."

Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said that goaltending increases in importance at this time of the year. Fans at tonight's game will see the league's best, at least statistically.

Anthony Cosmo of Boston led the NLL with a 9.66 goals-against average. That was a tick better than the GAA of Buffalo's Mike Thompson (9.67). Thompson is a contender for the league's Most Valuable Player award, although his play in the last two games might have hurt his chances a bit.

"Obviously, a lot depends on goaltending. If a goalie gets hot, it can matter," Steenhuis said.

The other East playoff game tonight, between Toronto and Rochester, isn't any easier to decipher. The Rock, which started the season brilliantly, lost three in a row and four of its last five to barely hold on to second place. The Knighthawks won five of their last six -- including four in a row on the road. Both finished 10-6.

We'll find out the identity of the league champion in about 15 days. Self, who came over in an offseason trade with Minnesota, can hardly wait.

"I was in the playoffs last year, but it's nice to be part of a team that's hosting a playoff game -- maybe a couple, maybe three," he said. "It's a great fan base here. I anticipate it being a great crowd [tonight] and a great game."

***

Brandon Francis' suspension was reduced from four games to three by an arbitrator on Friday. The forward has already served one of the games. He therefore could return for a championship game if the Bandits advance that far.

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com

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