By Chris Ryndak - Bandits.com
After a rough and tumble 16-game regular season, the playoffs are finally here.
The Buffalo Bandits head up the QEW for the East Division Semi-Finals against the Toronto Rock tonight at 7 p.m. at Air Canada Centre (TV: TSN in Canada, NLL.com in the U.S.; Radio: WGR 550).
The winner will face the Rochester Knighthawks, who defeated the Philadelphia Wings by a 14-13 decision last night. If the Bandits win, they’ll go to Rochester next weekend, but if the Rock end up victorious, they’ll host the Knighthawks.
Buffalo may have won this year’s season series against Toronto 2-1, but the Rock won the division and are also the defending champions. The Rock ousted the Bandits in the second-round of the playoffs last season en route to their Champion’s Cup-clinching victory over Washington.
“They’re defending champs for a reason,” said Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat. “Those guys step up in these playoff games and these big games so we’re looking for our guys to sustain and match their intensity. If we match their intensity and you get a couple breaks here and there down the road then things can go your way.”
As Toronto won the division and has home field advantage, some Bandits may approach the game as the underdog. Whatever tactic works to get them motivated is fine for Bandits Associate General Manager Derek Graham.
“It’s a matter of mental preparation and if it helps being the underdogs to motivate the individual then I guess we’ll find out Saturday night,” Graham said.
Rock General Manager Terry Sanderson was quick to dismiss Graham’s pulling of the underdog card, citing the Bandits’ record against Toronto this season.
“Regardless of what records us and Buffalo have against one another, there’s a lot of dislike there,” Sanderson said. “Respect goes along with that dislike. I would expect nothing more than a typical Buffalo-Toronto battle.”
The Bandits’ offense this season has been bolstered by forwards John Tavares and Luke Wiles and transition player Mark Steenhuis.
With 41 goals and 39 assists, the 43-year-old Tavares ended 2012 seventh in the league in scoring and his best offensive output since 2009. He led the Bandits in offense for the 17th time in his 21-year career.
Tavares also led the league with 21 power play goals. Wiles finished third with 18 goals on the man advantage. Buffalo’s power play finished second in the league at 55.2 percent.
The Rock is led by Garrett Billings, who set the NLL single-season record for assists with 82. Billings finished 2012 with 114 points, second only to Colorado’s John Grant, Jr.
Casey Barnes and Stephan Leblanc each scored 28 goals for Toronto and captain Colin Doyle finished with 25 goals and 59 points.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Garrett Billings has had a career year,” Teat said. “If we want to let him run the offense and dictate what’s going to happen in our end then obviously you’re going to be in trouble so we prepare for things like that.”
Toronto acquired goaltender Nick Rose from Calgary at the trade deadline and he’s had a good run for the Rock since taking over the starting job. He went 5-1 in the regular season with a 10.69 goals against average and a .751 save percentage. Tonight will be Rose’s first playoff start.
“I’m not saying we rolled the dice with Nick but we did feel a change was needed,” Sanderson said. “Nick’s come in and has done real well. Having said that, we also know that we’re going up against one of the better established pro goalies in our league.”
That other goaltender will be Anthony Cosmo of the Bandits. Arriving in Buffalo via trade with Minnesota in mid-February, Cosmo has finally settled in during his last few starts.
“He’s obviously got a lot of pressure,” Graham said. “I don’t think he’s won a playoff game in this league. So we can’t put any more pressure than Anthony’s putting on himself. We’re aware of that and we really want to help him get the win and we want to help get ourselves a win at the same time.”
Cosmo has a 12.5 goals against average and a .791 save percentage in two starts since taking over full-time for an injured Mike Thompson.
Graham said that Thompson, who sprained his MCL against Edmonton on April 14, practiced with the team on Tuesday and should be ready to play if the team needs him.
Graham also indicated the defenseman Darryl Gibson, who has been nursing a bruised thigh, is expected to play as well.
Tonight marks the Bandits’ 34th playoff game all-time. In first round playoff games, Buffalo is 12-5 (.706) all-time and 7-2 (.778) under head coach Darris Kilgour. Overall, the Bandits are 20-13 in the postseason (4-5 on the road) and are 11-8 under Kilgour.
They have the opportunity to improve on those records and make a run at the Champion’s Cup tonight.