3/15/2017 11:24:00 AM / John Gurtler
While the City of Buffalo plays host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament starting Thursday, the Bandits will be out west – way out west.
And that is fine by the 4-6 club, who will be 2,731 miles away in Vancouver. As the town rolls out the red carpet for visitors from all over the country to enjoy the good neighbors and witness what I am sure will be great games on the hardwood, the Bandits will focus on the serious work ahead of them in their remaining eight games of the regular season. They’ll look to win out.
It’s easier said than done, but I like the way this team is starting to play and I know they can’t wait to get back out on the floor after another week off, start things right and don’t look back.
Without question, the Bandits have one of the toughest second-half schedules in the league with five of the eight remaining on the road. It starts back up with the rejuvenated Vancouver Stealth Friday night.
Like the Bandits, the Stealth have won three of their last four games, including two straight with convincing victories over Saskatchewan and Colorado.
Vancouver’s Cory Small leads the NLL in scoring going into the St. Patrick’s Day clash with 29 goals and 43 assists for 72 points. Rhys Duch follows in seventh place with 24 goals and 30 assists.
Three Stealth players that heed notice and need constant coverage are Joel McCready, Jordon Durston and Justin Salt. Their efforts and contributions have been invaluable.
The Stealth transition and defense are strong, and goaltender Tye Belanger has the best save percentage in the loop at .807.
These two teams met back on January 21st with the Bandits collecting their first win of the season in a 21-15 win. Steve Priolo scored a hat trick and earned three assists. Ryan Benesch recorded four goals and five assists. Mitch Jones scored four goals, too.
It’s pretty much a numbers game from here on out for the Bandits, and it begins this week. The clubs match up evenly as both are shooting 17 percent from the floor, hitting the net 71 percent of the time. And they come close with faceoff percentage (although it is a weakness for both).
Depending on who is healthy for the Bandits, it would be a welcomed addition if Benesch, Anthony Malcom, Blaze Riorden and Alexander-Kedoh Hill were cleared to play. And that goes for defenseman Andrew Watt and Nick Weiss too.
But the Bandits have responded well with everybody stepping up and playing strong games, including Dhane Smith, Mitch Jones, Brad Self and Mark Steenhuis.
And the Great Dhane is back to averaging seven points a game with 13 goals and 23 assists for 36 points in his last five. Mitch Jones has 20 points in his last five. Brad Self, moving up front, has netted 18 points. Steenhuis has 17 and Hill has14 in his last four games played.
Really, the most impressive of all is the fact that other Bandit players have made crucial contributions. It starts with Craig England, who picks his spots perfectly netting 12 goals, and scoring one or two in every game since getting his roster assignment on January 21.
That includes Riorden and the addition of Pat Saunders, with the two of them scoring four goals and four assists in the two games they have played.
Now, it’s all hands on deck for the Bandits if they want to take a run with these eight games remaining. The best 17 runners and two goaltenders must be on their game.
Noted earlier, I like the way this team has come together recently and that has a lot to do with goaltender Anthony Cosmo, who is on a three-game wining streak and has a .777 save percentage during that span. Dave DiRuscio turned in a strong performance making 40 saves in the recent overtime loss to Rochester.
Chemistry and communication has, too, played a role in the Bandits defense with relentless attacking from Priolo, Bill Dee Smith, Mitch de Snoo, Watt, Adam Will and Justin Martin.
Priolo, the constant runner up to defensive player of the year, leads the league in scoring and has 21 caused turnovers.
When transitioning the ball up the floor in pairs, the Bandits are lethal and you can tell Kevin Brownell, Hill and David Brock strike a chord by either taking the ball in or setting up the forwards coming out the front door. I have noticed more synchronicity with the trio, and that goes for Tim Edwards and Matthew Bennett as well. Push the ball in pairs and good things happen.
The numbers are positive for the Bandits and things are coming together to make a serious run at these final eight. And it’s good that they are starting back up out of the spotlights way out west.
Radio broadcast coverage of Friday night’s game in Vancouver will be on ESPN 1520 AM and WGWE 105.9 FM in Salamanca. The pregame show starts at 10 p.m. ET. I will go to the coaches’ room for a follow-up from the bye week. The Bandit profile will be Pat Saunders. Faceoff is scheduled for 10:30 p.m.
The game will be carried on NLLTV.com subscription with Jake Elliott on the call.