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Bandits’ turnaround on track with 8-2 start

So far, so good.

The Buffalo Bandits have won eight of their first 10 games this season. That’s quite a turnaround from the team that lost seven of its last eight games last season to become the only team in the National Lacrosse League to miss the playoffs.

General Manager Steve Dietrich has no complaints about the way this season has gone to date.

“We’ve had some guys who had down seasons last year come back and play more at the level we’d been accustomed to,” he said. “We’ve had some guys who were young last year who continued to step forward. So we’re happy so far with what we’ve got, but we’re only 10 games in. We have the tough part of our schedule coming up.”

The list of difficult games starts tonight. The Bandits play in Edmonton against the undefeated Rush (9:30 p.m.,, Radio 1520 AM).

The 2013 season was perhaps the most disappointing in Bandits’ history. That put a great deal of pressure on Dietrich to turn the team around, and fast. After all, Buffalo has some advantages that most of the other teams in the league don’t have, such as better finances due to high attendance figures and a location that’s close to the Southern Ontario breeding ground of much of the league’s talent.

In hindsight, Dietrich made a few important player moves, but he didn’t blow up the roster.

“I thought we put together a good team last year,” he said. “A lot of nights in that losing streak, we were in those games. When the team that won the world championship,” the Rochester Knighthawks, “beat us by a goal here to knock us out of the playoffs, it showed that we needed to make some movements and some roster changes.

“We brought in Ryan Benesch, We brought in Rory Smith, we brought in Joe Resetarits – guys that have been big contributors this year.”

Dietrich also brought in a new coach in Troy Cordingley, who replaced Darris Kilgour. The team’s GM believes that has made a difference, too.

“Darris had done a phenomenal job for 11 years, but bringing in a new voice, new attitude, something different, has translated into making us where we are right now,” Dietrich said. “That being said, because of Troy’s openness to let” assistant coaches “Rich Kilgour and Danny Teat contribute more than what they’ve done in the past, the family atmosphere has grown. It’s not a case of ‘I’m going to make the decision.’ We all make the decisions together. You show that family attitude up top, and it makes the guys believe in it.”

Ironically, the biggest move that Dietrich made in the offseason is one that didn’t take place. He left Anthony Cosmo as the Bandits’ top goalie after a poor 2013; there was no “Plan B.”

“I thought Kurtis Wagar did a fantastic job when he did come in, but Anthony Cosmo and Matt Vinc,” of Rochester, “in my opinion are the two best goalies in the league,” he said. “He didn’t play at that level last year. We didn’t give him a chance on a lot of nights to play at that level. But this year, the way he’s played has given our defense a chance to grow and jell a bit as a unit. Now they play in unison. … There was never any thought to looking at other options in the summertime. We’re glad he’s back at the level we know he can play at.”

Dietrich’s inertia has paid off so far. The Bandits have allowed fewer than 10 goals in their last four games. It’s the first time since 2009 that a Buffalo team has been that stingy. Meanwhile, Cosmo is a candidate for league Most Valuable Player honors.

On offense, the Bandits have relied on a balanced attack. They don’t have anyone who is even in the top 15 in the NLL in scoring. However, Buffalo has five players who have between 30 and 45 points so far.

Add it up, and the Bandits have accomplished their main goal for the first 10 games. They have taken advantage of a front-loaded schedule for home games (seven of 10 in the First Niagara Center). That ends tonight with the trip to Edmonton, a team that has almost mocked the concept of parity in the NLL.

Coach and General Manager Derek Keenan has done a good job with the Rush, Dietrich said. “You struggle for a while, you draft well, you make some nice trades, and things come into fruition. That’s been a long time coming for them. … You’re bad for so long, and then fall into some good players, and you’ll get better.”

Tonight’s game starts a run of six road games out of seven, including a visit to Minnesota on Sunday. Dietrich knows what the team’s goals are for the rest of the season.

“You want to punch your ticket for the playoffs,” he said. “Once you get your ticket, you want to host the first game. If you get past that, you worry about hosting a championship game or at least an East Division final. We’re tracking properly to make the playoffs, then we can worry about hosting the first round. But we’ve got a long way to go. There’s a lot of schedule ahead of us.”