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Bandits capture NLL East title as Dhane Smith breaks season goal mark

Mission accomplished.

The Buffalo Bandits knew they could do themselves a lot of good with a victory over the New England Black Wolves on Saturday night. They did it in smashing fashion, earning a relatively easy 12-7 win before a sellout crowd of 19,070 in First Niagara Center.

The particulars:

• The Bandits became the champions of the National Lacrosse League’s East Division with a 13-5 record. That gives them a first-round playoff bye, and they’ll face the winner of the one-game series between the Black Wolves and the Georgia Swarm that will be played Friday night at New England.

• The Bandits’ 13 wins set a team record for victories in a season. The team hasn’t led the league in wins by itself since 1993.

• Buffalo will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

• Dhane Smith broke the NLL record for goals in a season, as his four goals brought his total to 72. That broke Athan Iannucci’s mark set in 2008.

“It’s another achievement, a goal that we set in the beginning of the year,” coach Troy Cordingley said about the successful conclusion of the regular season. “The guys were real good. ... As the game progressed we got into the flow and played the way we can play.”

The Bandits will enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NLL, having won nine of their last 10 games. This one was in their control for much of the contest.

Buffalo led only 3-2 after a quarter in which the team seemed energetic but not particularly efficient. Smith had two of those goals, bringing his total to 70. He tied the league record early in the second period, but it was still a 4-3 game with 10 minutes to go until halftime.

Then Mark Steenhuis scored, and Smith followed with a successful shot from long range in which goalie Evan Kirk of New England may have been screened.

“It was nice to get that off my chest,” Smith said. Ryan Benesch “said he’d feed me to get it out of the way, but I told him I just wanted to get the win.”

Smith added that breaking the league record for points in a season last week against Rochester helped him relax a bit as he approached the goal-scoring mark on Saturday.

“His season was just marvelous,” Steenhuis said. “He’s such a great kid. He’s got many more seasons like this ahead of him. I’ll go to battle with him any time. He’s a pretty cool customer.”

Smith’s goal was part of a four-goal run that took most of the enthusiasm out of the Black Wolves. They never got closer than four goals the rest of the way, as the Buffalo defense was in good form.

“They kept with it,” Cordingley said. “When they pressed us early, the defense panicked a little bit. But Coach Rich” Kilgour “made some adjustments, and the nerves calmed down.”

Buffalo’s major offensive weapons led the way. Smith added two assists to his four goals to finish the season with 137 points. Benesch added three goals and four assists, and Steenhuis had four goals and three assists - including his 900th point as a Bandit, second in team history to John Tavares.

Injuries played a part in the game. New England star forward Shawn Evans suffered an unspecified injury and left the game in the second quarter with one goal to his credit.

Bandits goalie Anthony Cosmo injured his knee about nine minutes into the game and did not return; Dave DiRuscio was solid in relief.

“We lost two of the top players in the same game between Cosmo and Evans,” Cordingley said. “You don’t like to see that happen.”

After completing one of the most successful regular seasons in Bandits history, the team must forget about it. It’s time to turn the page – after a well-earned vacation of one week.

“It will be nice for us to rest the body and get ready,” Steenhuis said. “It’s an exciting time of the year.”