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How the Bandits have made a run to the top of the NLL East

One particular statistic provides a good clue as to why the Buffalo Bandits are leading the National Lacrosse League’s East Division with a 7-4 record.

They are really good at collecting loose balls.

Bandit players rank fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth in the league among individuals in that department. That’s a lot of extra possessions up for grabs that have been claimed by Buffalo, and they can lead to more shots, more goals and more wins.

The Bandits’ team leader in the category is Jay Thorimbert with 91. He is followed by Mitch Jones (80), Steve Priolo (76) and Dhane Smith (72). They’ll try to increase their totals on Friday night when the team hosts the Vancouver Stealth at First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM).

Thorimbert is accustomed to leading the team in loose balls. He’s been one of the best at it since he arrived here in 2011, and he set a career high with 245 recoveries in 2015.

“Being involved in faceoffs obviously helps, because you are so close to them,” Thorimbert said. “That helps. I don’t think there are any secrets involved.”

With so many Bandits ranking among the league leaders in the category, it’s obvious the coaches have made collecting loose balls one of their priorities.

“I think the coaches preach about the little things that add up,” Thorimbert said. “It’s one of the things we’re focused on, because it leads to goals. The offensive guys are getting rebounds, and that leads to secondary opportunities on offense. We’re getting more chances to score.

“Faceoffs are sometimes a 50-50 deal. A loose ball is a freebie.”

While an individual gets credit for collecting a loose ball, it’s almost more of a team statistic. The Bandits lead the NLL in loose balls with 848, well ahead of Calgary’s 796 in one fewer game played this season.

“Sometimes the first guy in gives an opponent a bump, and the second guy comes in and picks up the ball,” Thorimbert said. “On faceoffs, a guy on the line pushes a player away, allowing another guy to run free. There is some teamwork involved. It doesn’t matter who gets to the ball, as long as someone on the team does.”

Thorimbert also handles all the faceoffs on the Bandits. He’s won 189 of 337 going into the Vancouver game. That 56 percent success rate ranks among the league’s best, and he’s won more draws than anyone else in the league.

But Thorimbert’s winning percentage is down from last year’s 65.6 percent. He points to some rule changes regarding faceoffs that have leveled the playing field this season.

“They changed it to the ‘one-step rule’ that follows the NCAA,” Thorimbert said. “Before you could clamp the ball and pick it up. Last year, I made the habit of running around with the ball in my stick, then popping it out and catching it. Now, when you trap it, you have to stand up and let the ball come out. It’s difficult to catch it.

“They’ve also changed the timing of the whistle. It used to be down-set-whistle. Now they say down, set, but the whistle can be quick or slow. Every time there’s a false start, you know they’ve changed it up. Everyone is dealing with the same things.”

The most important number of all is that the Bandits have won their last three games. The streak has lifted them from a .500 record to the lead in the division.

The chance to take a weekend off for the first time this season left Thorimbert with some mixed emotions.

“We were on a bit of a roll, and you never like to take a week off when you’re going good,” he said. “But the guys can heal up a bit. There’s never a bad time for a week off.”

The Bandits played the Stealth in suburban Vancouver on March 5 and defeated them by a score of 13-8. Since then, the Stealth fired head coach Dan Perreault and replaced him with Jamie Batley, who was a member of the Bandits in 1995 and 1999. Vancouver comes into the game with a 3-8 record and is in last place in the NLL West. That adds a little mystery to Friday’s matchup.

“You never know what to expect,” Thorimbert said. “Their systems might change. They could have a different scheme.

“We’ll have to take a look at their last game,” a 24-16 loss to Saskatchewan last weekend, “and see what happened.”