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Bandits host Rock with division crown on line

The party in Banditland continues tonight, and it couldn’t come against a more fitting opponent.

Buffalo will welcome rival Toronto to the KeyBank Center at 7:30 p.m. with the East Division Championship and a shot at a fifth NLL title on the line.

Toronto (13-6) is coming off of one of its best offensive showings of the season. The Rock used a five-goal run in the second quarter to help down Georgia, 16-14, in their opening round game.

The Bandits’ northern rival is looking for its first East Division title since 2015 and its first league championship since 2011.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath out there, and I’m definitely looking forward to it,” forward Josh Byrne told NLL.com on Friday.

If there’s one team that can go toe-to-toe completely with Buffalo, it’s Toronto. They were the only squad in the league to beat the Bandits more than once this season.

The Rock beat Buffalo in the Bandits’ home opener on Dec. 21, 17-12, and squeaked by, 12-11, on April 5.

The Bandits took the middle matchup on March 23, 8-6.

What makes Toronto dangerous is its ability to score in bursts, as Georgia found out on May 6.

The Swarm got off to a quick 2-0 lead before four straight goals gave the Rock the lead.

When Georgia got three scores back, Toronto scored five in the next eight minutes to break the game open.

Buffalo got a taste of Toronto’s goal-scoring prowess in its home opener, when Toronto used a six-goal rally to erase a 5-1 Bandits lead.

Forward Rob Hellyer is eighth in the league in points with 86. He logged six – two goals and four assists – in the Rock’s win over the Swarm.

Another threat to score is forward Tom Schreiber, who has 94 points this season and scored four goals in Toronto’s game against Georgia.

The difference between the two teams will most likely come down to who is between the pipes, where the Bandits have a clear advantage in Matt Vinc.

The Bandits’ MVP has arguably been responsible for many of the Bandits 15 wins this season.

He boasts a 10.02 goals-against average in 1036:24 minutes in net — the second-most time in goal behind Calgary’s Christian Del Bianco (1074:44).

Vinc allowed 173 goals in the regular season for a .803 save percentage. That’s tops in the league for a starting goalie.

His Toronto counterpart will likely be Nick Rose, who sported a 12-6 record in the regular season.

Rose has a respectable .771 save percentage but also allowed the most goals in the league (201) in the regular season.

Last week against Georgia, he allowed 14 goals on 49 shots. In contrast, Vinc allowed six on 52 New England shots.

The players in front of Rose will have to interrupt Buffalo’s transitions and passes to help him out.

New England showed how an aggressive defense can throw a wrench in the machine.

The Black Wolves kept Buffalo’s offense quiet from the end of the first quarter to midway through the second, which allowed them to cut the Bandits’ lead to one.

This aggressive style of defense was a problem for Buffalo earlier in the season as well in an 18-13 loss to Rochester.

In that game, the Knighthawks kept Buffalo from finding the back of the net for nearly ten minutes while they scored five goals.

But when Buffalo’s offense is clicking, it does not bode well for opponents.

The Bandits have won seven games by a margin of five goals or more this season, including last week’s playoff game.

Shawn Evans, Dhane Smith and Corey Small all have a tendency to find themselves on the score sheet multiple times.

Evans led Buffalo scorers last week with three goals; he had 28 in the regular season.

Smith, the “Great Dhane” as he is known, recorded 32 in the regular season and a pair of scores against the Black Wolves.

Small, acquired via trade from Vancouver in November, lead the team with 36 goals and scored twice versus New England.

These names are merely examples; nearly every player on Buffalo’s starting roster has the ability to score quickly, which has been the reason for the team’s success.

Whichever team comes out of the KeyBank Center tonight with the division title in hand will challenge the Calgary Roughnecks, who won the West Division championship Friday night.

Calgary defeated Colorado, 8-4, Friday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome to advance.

Calgary bested the expansion San Diego Seals earlier on May 6 to earn their way to the semifinals.

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