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Bandits begin quest to capture first indoor lacrosse title since ’08

When Buffalo Bandits’ goalie Anthony Cosmo heard about the team’s playoff schedule, he instantly knew he had to make some phone calls.

The New England Black Wolves first announced that their postseason series with the Bandits would open Tuesday in their home in Uncasville, Conn. That would make it very difficult for Cosmo, an Ontario teacher in his regular job, to play in the game.

But then the Black Wolves announced the game would be played Monday, which was a better date for the netminder. Therefore, Cosmo will be ready to go when Buffalo plays New England in the first game of the National Lacrosse League’s East Division final (7 p.m., Radio 550 AM,

“I’ve got a support staff and a board at home,” Cosmo said. “They allowed me some time off. I’ll take a leave of absence. I don’t get paid for the day, but it’s a good opportunity to play the sport I love.”

The problem was that the Mohegan Sun Arena was booked for concerts for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights this weekend. Moving the game to a nearby city, such as Hartford or Bridgeport, wasn’t a great solution. Neither was the idea of playing both games in the “best-of-two series” in Buffalo.

Therefore, the Black Wolves’ front office picked the Monday night date, even though many people connected with the two teams have full-time jobs, Monday through Friday.

Cosmo wasn’t the only one with scheduling problems in this case. Coach Troy Cordingley is a schoolteacher, so the Bandits’ coach shared Cosmo’s issues. Kevin Brownell and Mitch de Snoo are in college, and had to work around final examinations.

But after some rearranging of schedules that possibly included a little begging, the Bandits will be all present and accounted for Monday night.

“Everybody is good,” Cordingley said. “It took a lot of work by the players to make sure they were available. It’s something that we have to deal with. It would have been a lot tougher on Tuesday.”

With that out of the way, the Bandits can concentrate on what’s ahead of them in the playoffs. They face an unfamiliar path in a sense as they go after their first championship since 2008.

Buffalo was eliminated by Rochester in 2014 and 2015, and by Toronto in 2010, 2011 and 2012. There’s no sign of the Knighthawks or the Rock this time around, as both teams missed the playoffs.

What’s more, the Bandits finished with a 13-5 record, having won nine of their last 10 games. They go into the playoffs with home-field advantage through the playoffs. It’s a step up from last season’s 11-7 record, a year that ended with a first-round playoff loss in Rochester.

“I’m not sure what the difference is this year,” forward Dhane Smith said. “We’re a really close group. It’s been a close group all four years I’ve been here. I think it’s our time now.”

“The success we’ve had builds confidence, and confidence breeds success,” said Cosmo, who will be back in the lineup Monday after recovering from a minor leg injury suffered in the last regular season game on April 30. “It goes hand-in-hand. ... We have to bring that confidence to this series.”

The two teams in the series have some common traits. New England also took a big step forward in 2016. The Black Wolves went from 4-14 to 10-6, and they had no incentive to win their last regular-season game. In the three games between the teams in the regular season, the home team won them all (Buffalo had a 2-1 edge).

New England offers one of the league’s top players in Shawn Evans, who set the NLL record for points in a season in 2015 – only to have it broken by Smith this year. Evans missed much of the last regular season game between the teams with an injury, but he’s ready to go now. Kevin Crowley and Pat Saunders also had excellent regular seasons, but Evans is the centerpiece of the offense.

“He’s a good player,” defenseman Steve Priolo said about Evans. “He works the game to his advantage and he gets his points. But we have one of those guys too in Dhane. Our offense is unbelievable. Defensively, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll shut them down.”

Both teams have goalies who are playing well. Evan Kirk of the Black Wolves and Cosmo are among the league leaders in save percentage this season.

If the first round of the playoffs is any indication, everyone involved in the postseason is in for quite a battle. New England needed overtime to sneak past Georgia in the East, while Calgary also scored in extra time to surprise Colorado.

“I think they add another referee for the playoffs, as the intensity goes way up,” Priolo said. “There might be more calls because of that. The Georgia-New England game went to overtime, and there was a questionable penalty on a hold. That helped end Georgia’s season. We know we have to play disciplined.”

The second game of the series will be played in First Niagara Center on Saturday night. If the two teams each have won a game when that contest is over, the squads will play a 10-minute mini-game immediately following that second game to decide who will advance to the NLL finals.

The Bandits accomplished all of their regular season goals. They won their first division title since 2011, and they have home-field advantage through the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Now there’s only one goal left, and the journey toward it begins Monday night.

“Every year you play, you think you’re going to win the championship,” Priolo said. “This year, I’ll say it again – this is our year. But it’s time to prove it. It’s a new season that starts right now.”