Blogs | 4/30/2014 3:04:52 PM | John Gurtler
Playoffs? Playoffs? You’re talking playoffs?!
Yes, correct you are oh great one. The 2014 NLL regular season is water under the bridge with the dirty old ice escaping from the lifted ice booms of Lake Erie.
As the majestic large chunks of ice flow from under the Peace Bridge in the fast current of the mighty Niagara, they are reflective of the fragmented season the Buffalo Bandits have endured.
New month. New season. One chance.
The Bandits enter their 19th postseason in search of their fifth NLL Championship.
Saturday night’s sudden-death Eastern Division semifinal in Toronto pits two teams who don’t like each other, and are also pretty evenly matched.
The Bandits won the regular season series 2-1, powered by a pair of identical 12-10 scores earlier in the season. And while the 13-9 loss a couple of weeks ago was a tough one, there were chunks of play the team can draw from going into Saturday night’s single-elimination encounter.
After a 4-7 start, the Rock rebounded with a 4-0 April where they kept their opponent from scoring nine or fewer goals in each game. And they did it without their leading scorer, Garrett Billings, who is out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in early April.
Injuries played a role with the Rock as they used 31 players during the season. The Bandits remained generally pretty healthy, using just 23 players.
The Bandits had that great early run, wining eight of nine, and holding their opponents to nine goals or less during four of those wins. The defense was stellar for the most of the season and goaltender Anthony Cosmo was outstanding, keeping the Bandits in many games.
Like the Bandits, the Rock has assembled a very good defensive unit and can rely on the one-two goaltending punch of Nick Rose (6-8) and Brandon Miller (3-1).
Buffalo will rely on the focused goaltending of Cosmo. He has his own personal challenge for the postseason and that should be enough motivation going into the game.
The transition part of the rosters has the Bandits with the advantage in youthful legs and experienced veterans to help push the ball quickly. Toronto has shown they can also go end-to-end pretty quickly and score, just look no further than the last meeting between these two clubs.
Bandits will rely off the draw duties, as they have all season, with Jay Thorimbert’s 57 percent success rate. Toronto’s Ethan O’Connor takes the majority of the draws for the Rock, compiling a 42 percent success rate.
Forced turnovers and loose balls will be very important as well.
Special teams find the Rock holding the edge with the second-best power play at 50 percent (51 percent at home), while the Bandits improved on the man up at the end of the season by pushing 41 percent. Penalty killing have the two teams even both home and away at 54 percent.
The Rock went 7-4 when scoring first during the regular season while Buffalo was 6-4. Toronto also holds the advantage in both shots (53-49) and goals (12-11) per game. In addition, both teams recorded identical 6-3 home records.
Defensively, the Rock has a very strong and playoff experienced roster, led by Sandy Chapman, Bill Greer and Jesse Gamble.
From the front door, the Rock has the benefit of some nifty snipers in the form of Stephan Leblanc (45 goals) and Colin Doyle (31 goals). Most impressive this year was Rob Hellyer (29-50-79) who took advantage of his promotion, and the always dangerous Kasey Beirnes (27-25-52).
Kevin Ross was a welcome addition to the Toronto roster, as the Bandits found in their April 18 game at the ACC when he scored three goals and two assists.
And the combined playoff experience that Doyle has with Josh Sanderson (22-48-70) is a real benefit.
Complementing the playoff experience, the Bandits will draw off the floor knowledge of John Tavares (183 points in 33 career playoff games) and Shawn Williams (73 points in 20 career playoff games) and Mark Steenhuis (41 goals in 20 career playoff games).
Ryan Benesch (35 points in just seven career playoffs games) and Joe Resetarits will need to be the close-range playmakers and scorers, while second-year pro Dhane Smith is the foiler in the fray with his track-fast speed and shooting abilities.
Newcomers Mitch Jones and Joel Matthews bring a refreshing element to the Bandits attack, and will be making their postseason debuts along with Resetarits and Smith.
But the key will be the pack of nomad transition and defensive players who take care of the Bandits end. Pending who is in the lineup, the Bandits have an excellent draw in Jamie Rooney (12 points in four career playoff games), Aaron Wilson (38 points in 10 career playoff games), and Chad Culp (19 points in six career playoff games).
And you can’t forget the likes of Mitch Wilde, Jay Thorimbert, David Brock and Andrew Watt.
From the department of defense, Billy Dee Smith is expected back after missing the last four games due to injury. He’ll be joined on the back end by Steve Priolo, Rory Smith, Derek Suddons and Glen Bryan. Everything from the periphery and in will have to be accounted for.
Toronto will attempt shots from every angle. Players like Beirnes and Ross will go close and they are good shooters from close range.
Doyle, Leblanc, Sanderson and Hellyer are a tough quad to stop. The Bandits defense certainly has the ability to shut things down but they will be busy.
What team can remain poised, well positioned, and disciplined?
There will be another referee on the floor as well during the playoffs. Hopefully they will remain stewards of infractions and let the players decide what level the game should be played and, too, the outcome.
We are talking playoffs.
Radio coverage of Saturday night’s game from the Air Canada Centre will be heard on ESPN 1520 and WGWE 105.3FM. WGR’s Dave Buchanan will join me in the booth as Randy Mearns and his Canisius College Griffs are in the playoffs as well.
The pre-game show begins at 6:30 p.m. with the game scheduled for 7 p.m.