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Bandits vs. Rush is a clash of titans for NLL title

After a six-month grind through training camp, an 18-game regular season and a pair of playoff rounds, the National Lacrosse League’s championship series is finally here.

And this one has every chance to be worth the wait.

“I’ve actually thought about that,” said Troy Cordingley, coach of the Buffalo Bandits. “Both teams are 15-5 this season, and they’re the top teams in the division.”

“I think it will be a dandy,” said Derek Keenan, coach of the Saskatchewan Rush. “Both teams are more than worthy of being there. Both teams are very good.”

The Bandits, winners of the NLL’s East Division, take on the Rush, champions of the NLL West. Game One of the best-of-three series takes place Saturday night at First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., TWCSN, Radio 550 AM). Game Two will be at 9 p.m. June 4 in Saskatchewan, with a deciding third game, if necessary, back in Buffalo at 7:30 p.m. June 11.

A look at the game the teams played on Feb. 26 shows they are closely matched. Buffalo had an 18-16 lead with four minutes to go, only to see the Rush’s Robert Church score with 35 seconds left to tie it at 18-18. Then in overtime, Mitch Jones capped the best statistical game of his career (five goals) by scoring at 3:44 to give the Bandits the win.

“We played a little bit out of character,” Keenan said. “I don’t think either team was too good defensively, and that might be an understatement. … But that game was a long time ago. Both teams have gotten better.”

In hindsight, it was a huge win for the Bandits. They had dropped two straight to fall to 4-4, and had to go west to take on the league’s defending champion. From a distance, it looks like the win gave them a confidence boost that allowed them to finish the season by winning nine of the final 10 games.

“As the old saying goes, a win is a win,” Cordingley said. “I don’t know if it was a turning point, but since then we’ve played consistently well on defense. It could be something that helped us.”

For those who like a little star power with their sports, the series has two of the best young players in indoor lacrosse. Mark Matthews of the Rush, 26, checks in at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. The forward led Saskatchewan with 109 points.

“I think because he’s such a big player that he’s a lot quicker than people give him credit for,” Cordingley said. “He’s a special player – works the floor extremely well, his shot is extremely accurate. I guess the way I would look at it is that he’s the Mario Lemieux of lacrosse.”

Church, Zack Greer and Ben McIntosh are a good supporting cast. All had at least 60 points in the regular season.

For Buffalo, Dhane Smith emerged as one of the league’s superstars at the age of 23. After a record-setting regular season, Smith has scored 15 points in two playoff games.

“I can’t believe how he’s evolved,” Keenan said about Smith. “I’ve seen him play since he was a kid. He’s very, very difficult to stop.”

Teammate Ryan Benesch outscored Smith, 16-15, in the NLL East final with New England, while Alex Kedoh Hill has been a dynamic force in the playoffs with 11 points.

On defense, Saskatchewan offers Kyle Rubisch, who has been the league’s best defensive player for the past four years. He’s joined by Chris Corbeil, traded by the Bandits to the Rush in 2011 for a couple of draft choices.

“We had an opportunity to get him and we jumped at it,” Keenan said about Corbeil. “He’s a leader back there. We kind of have a fun, happy-go-lucky group back there, but he’s a little more serious.”

Buffalo offers a rugged veteran of its own in Billy Dee Smith and a bruising defenseman with athletic ability in Steve Priolo.

In goal, Aaron Bold of the Rush and Anthony Cosmo of the Bandits both have been around for many seasons. The two teams have some transition players who can create odd-man advantages – three-on-twos, two-on-ones – without much warning.

Both the Bandits and Rush had a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Buffalo and Saskatchewan had hard-fought series in the division finals with their opponents, but came away with two straight victories over the Black Wolves and Calgary Roughnecks, respectively.

The teams aren’t identical twins, and each has a noteworthy edge over the other in an important area. The Rush won the NLL title last year while playing in Edmonton, while the Bandits haven’t played for a title in eight years.

“We did have early struggles,” Keenan said. “We had inconsistencies, a little bit of championship hangover. But after that we seemed to play well. We were more consistent down the stretch.”

Buffalo could counter its finals’ inexperience with an extra home game in the series – no small factor in a best-of-three matchup. This will be a very loud series. Saskatoon needed no time to take to its new pro sports team while the Bandits have a tradition of fan enthusiasm.

“I don’t think there is anything like those games back in Buffalo when I played, but our building in Saskatchewan is pretty close to it. It was like they were sitting around, waiting for us,” Keenan said. “But those were some wild times back then.”

“It will be good to have the big houses,” Cordingley said. “We’ll have a big crowd, and they’ll get 15,000. It will be good for our sport.”