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In-season deals fuel runs by Bandits, Rock

The Buffalo Bandits opened their season against the Toronto Rock back in January. Tonight they'll open the National Lacrosse League playoffs against each other as well, but this particular meeting comes with a twist.

Both of tonight's expected starting goalies -- Anthony Cosmo of Buffalo and Nick Rose of Toronto -- weren't on those opening night rosters. They'll certainly be in the spotlight this evening (7 p.m.,, Radio 550 AM) when the teams square off in the postseason for the third straight year.

The two netminders who are in similar circumstances are even rooting for each other to play well.

"Nick is a friend of mine, so maybe it will be a low-scoring game and we'll come out on top," Cosmo said with a laugh.

Their journeys to this first-round East matchup have been unusual. Cosmo spent the first few weeks of the season sitting in suburban Toronto, waiting for a trade that would move him closer to home. He got it on Feb. 17, when the Minnesota Swarm sent him to Buffalo for two first-round draft picks.

Cosmo found out just how difficult it is to get up to speed after missing all of training camp and six weeks of a season.

"I've been getting used to my role in the organization," he said. "It wasn't so much that I was uncomfortable with the team. But I wasn't feeling comfortable with my game. Goaltending is all about confidence. It took longer than I wanted it to for my play to come back. The guys have been great here, and ownership has been awesome."

Speaking of adjustments, Cosmo's biggest issue came because of a rule change in the NLL this season. Teams have to move the ball over the center line in eight seconds, a change from last year's 10-second rule. It's made a surprising difference.

"The game is quicker," the veteran goalie said. "It's like there's a new type of play. The offensive guys get stuck on the defensive end more, and that make you vulnerable and accounts for a few more goals against."

Cosmo made his Buffalo debut on March 3, and didn't last the entire game as he was pulled in favor of Mike Thompson. Cosmo also exited early in a March 16 game in Toronto and a March 24 contest at Calgary.

However, the 34-year-old has turned his game around lately. The Bandits won three of their last four games, and Cosmo had all three wins. He leads the team in goals-against average (12.41) and save percentage (.759). More importantly, his save percentage during his four games in April was .809 -- which would have led the league had he done that for the entire season.

No wonder the Bandits, who were 2-6 in the first half of the season, closed with a 5-3 burst in the second half.

"It's that confidence and trust with players," Cosmo said. "I think we were still trying to find our identity before that. We got out of our roles for a while. But when we won a few games, guys started to play their roles and trust in each other. You have to beat them with all 20 players on your team, and that's the mind-set we have."

Bandits Assistant General Manager Derek Graham added, "We're happy with our goaltending. In the last four games, he's been getting better and better. The whole defense is definitely doing more of what they are supposed to be doing."

Meanwhile, Rose came over from Calgary to Toronto for a first-round draft choice on March 19. His performance can be measured just by his win-loss record as a member of the Rock: 5-1. Rose has a 10.69 goals-against average, almost two goals per game better than the man he replaced, Matt Roik (12.52).

"We're pleased with the way Nick has played," Rock general manager Terry Sanderson said. "Everyone pointed to our troubles as being goaltending. It wasn't the case entirely. I'm not saying we rolled the dice with Nick. Nick has come in and done really well. Now he's going up against one of the most established pro goalies. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Cosmo, but I'm happy Nick has come in and played well."

Toronto came back from a 4-6 record to finish 9-7 and win the East Division. It has five players who scored 50 or more points including Garrett Billings, who broke the league record for assists in a season by putting up 82.

"They didn't finish first in the East for nothing," Cosmo said. "They have a core of veterans. It's an awesome team, but I think we match up well with them. We've played them well this season."

Tonight's game might be a close one, as Toronto and Buffalo try to move on to the East final. The Bandits won two of three regular-season meetings with the Rock, and both teams won on the other team's floor. A hot goalie might decide matters, and that fact will put both men under the microscope tonight.

"It is all part of the gig we've chosen as a goalie," Cosmo said. "You can be a hero or a zero."