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Bandits return to winning ways in beating Rock

The Buffalo Bandits returned to their winning ways on Saturday night.

The Bandits had not played well in a Friday night loss in Toronto. In a rematch in its home building 24 hours later, Buffalo once again looked like the team that had won six games in a row and was on top of the National Lacrosse League’s East Division.

The Bandits’ offense was sharp, the defense was active and effective, and the team’s energy level and emotion jumped. The result was a 14-8 win over the Rock before 17,270 in the First Niagara Center.

“It was our compete level in a nutshell,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said. “What a huge difference 24 hours made.”

Buffalo regained the scoring touch that it had displayed throughout the year on Saturday. It was difficult to find any offensive players who stood out on Friday, and that seemed to inspire the team a day later. A 6-1 edge in the second quarter was decisive.

“We did have something to prove,” said Ryan Benesch, who had four goals and four assists to lead the way. “That was our worst offensive performance of the season. We were flat in the shootaround in the morning and flat in the warmup before the game.

“This was a chance to rebound. You just have to prepare to play back-to-back games. We knew if we got the right fluids into us and had a good sleep, we’d be fine.”

Meanwhile, Dhane Smith again played like the league’s leading scorer – which he is. Smith had five goals to run his season total to 64 and often drew double-teams in an attempt to at least slow him down. That move probably gave more room for Benesch and Co.

“I could tell by his body language that he was disappointed with his play,” Cordingley said. “He puts a lot of weight on his shoulders.”

Mark Steenhuis and Nick Weiss added two goals each for Buffalo.

On defense, the Bandits were in good form. They kept their feet moving to make sure that Toronto players didn’t get open very often. Only a little burst in the fourth quarter allowed the Rock to even get close to double digits in goals. Stephen Leblanc led Toronto with four goals.

“We were good on our coverage tonight,” Cordingley said. “We’ve got some talented players on defense, and they were good about being in the lanes.”

When Toronto did get some decent shots on goal, Dave DiRuscio was usually in good position and didn’t leave much open space. He stopped 50 of 58 shots.

DiRuscio hadn’t played since Feb. 26, but he certainly didn’t look rusty. The goalie was told earlier in the week he’d be playing one of the two weekend games.

“That definitely helps,” DiRuscio said. “I always try to be ready, though. I’m always watching videos so that I know about the other teams.”

The game featured a combined total of 84 penalty minutes. Brodie Merrill of the Rock picked up 24 of those personally, thanks to two major penalties and a game misconduct.

The intensity was fine with Cordingley.

“The refs should step away and let the guys play,” Cordingley said. “There were two teams battling out there. ... There were 17,000 in the stands and they want to see tough lacrosse.”

The playoff picture is still far from clear league-wide, but the Bandits are in a good position. At 11-5, they could clinch first place in the NLL East with a win next week in Rochester if second-place New England loses to Georgia. Another alternative to clinching first is simply to beat New England on April 30.

But consider this: If the season ended today, Rochester and Toronto would be out of the playoffs.

“Who would ever have thought that?” Benesch said. “You can never take a shift off in this league.”