MORNING SHOOTAROUND UPDATE
By Joe Ray - Bandits.com
After a week to refocus and a strong practice, the Buffalo Bandits are ready to take the postseason by storm after a disappointing second half of the regular season.
"It’s a new season, and one game where winner takes all, so we’ve gotta be prepared," Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. "It’s good to be loose, you don’t want to be too tight. It’s gonna be a grind from here."
In last week's 16-14 loss to the Rochester Knighthawksthe Bandits turned in their strongest offensive performance since scoring 16 goals in a Jan. 18 victory in Colorado. Cordingley hopes that his skilled group of forwards will be able to carry that scoring success into tonight's contest.
"We’re just trying to create space for guys to shoot the ball. We’ve got some good shooters on our team, and we did a good job of that against Rochester, and our power play was the way it should be. Those are positives that we’re taking in to the playoffs with us."
Bandits defenseman Billy Dee Smith is expected to return to the lineup tonight, fortifying a unit that had a number of lapses in the regular season finale last Saturday.
Buffalo Bandits (8-10) at Toronto Rock (9-9)
Last 5 Games: Buffalo (0-5); Toronto (4-1)
The Bandits and Rock will meet for a one-game playoff in the NLL Division Semifinal on Saturday at Air Canada Centre. The Bandits won the regular season series against Toronto, taking two of three contests. Buffalo defeated the Rock 12-10 at First Niagara Center on Jan. 10 and the Bandits won again at home by the exact same score on Feb. 1. The Rock won 13-9 in Toronto on April 17.
While the Bandits certainly hoped to pick up a win to clinch a home playoff spot, that victory never came, as they dropped their regular season finale at home to Rochester by a score of 16-14 last weekend.
Buffalo may have lost its final eight games of the regular season, but the only thing on the minds of the players is a fresh start.
“Coming up here this Saturday in Toronto, everyone’s got a fresh start … That’s all we’re focusing on is this Saturday,” Bandits forward Joel Matthews said. “We’re not focusing on an eight-game losing streak or anything like that or anything fans are saying or anything. We believe in the guys in our locker room, we believe in our coaches, we believe in our systems and we’re just gonna go in Saturday and do what we know and work hard.
“It’s one game, so whoever’s better that one night … we’re coming in [with a] clean slate and we’re gonna give it everything we’ve got.”
That sentiment was echoed by the coaching staff.
“I think obviously the way our season ended with the last eight games, I think the best way to approach it is … you wipe the slate clean,” Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat added. “It’s a fresh start, and not a whole lot matters now except for the game that’s on Saturday night. So I think we focus on that and not dwell on what’s happened over the last eight games.”
The issue that held the Bandits back in past weeks had been an offense that struggled to break through and beat hot goaltenders. The Bandits were able to put 14 goals past Rochester’s Matt Vinc last week, but the defense struggled on a number of occasions.
Buffalo will certainly need to get all their units on the same page for 60 minutes in Toronto.
“To be honest, we’ve exhausted talks and things to try and go over and try to figure out what went wrong in each game,” Teat said. “I think the thing we try to do is take some pauses out of those games. I thought offensively we had a real nice game against Rochester last weekend.
"I thought we were good the weekend before, just ran into a hot goalie in [Vinc]. Taking pauses is some of it and the fact that there’re games that we’ve played well and we did some real good things in."
The Bandits’ defense could be getting some reinforcements off the injury list just in time for the playoffs. Billy Dee Smith is ready to return from the injured reserve list and transition player Andrew Watt was a late scratch last week at home. Watt could return on Saturday as well.
Teat said that they will have to monitor players through shootaround on Saturday morning to determine who is 100-percent ready to play.
While the Bandits enter the postseason on a lengthy cold streak, Toronto won all four of their April games to not only get in the playoffs, but bring the crucial first-round playoff game to Air Canada Centre.
“We’re playing well right now, and we’re pretty happy about being able to grab that home game,” Rock head coach John Lovell said. “It’s great for our fans, and it’s great for our players to not have to travel this weekend, so we’re pretty excited about it.”
The Rock have won their last three games without Garrett Billings, who is out after tearing his ACL on April 5. Billings still ended the season with 13 more points than any other Rock player.
The Rock offense hasn’t missed a beat as the production has been maintained by Stephan Leblanc, Rob Hellyer and Colin Doyle, among others.
Toronto has also benefitted from a healthy defensive group that given up nine goals or less for four-straight games. Rock defensemen Patrick Merrill and Bill Greer each missed significant time this season and the healthy return of those two has been huge for Toronto.
The winning streak has simply been a case of all phases of the game – offense, defense, special teams and goaltending – coming together for the Rock, Lovell said.
“I think we played well earlier in the season too, but we had some breakdowns or we’d have a letdown about every game. Whether that was a defensive thing or an offensive thing or a power play thing, whatever the case may be we’d always seem to give up a bad run,” he said.
“But we’ve certainly been more consistent in our effort, and our goaltending has been real good down the stretch here, and part of that is Brandon [Miller] but it’s been good with Nick [Rose] too.”
The Rock expect to have a great crowd at home for this playoff game. Having won six of nine home games during the regular season, home field advantage will certainly be a factor in Toronto.
“I think both teams are pretty similar with a lot of veterans,” Rock goaltender Brandon Miller said. “Both teams are used to each other, not just from this year but from the past three seasons, playing each other quite a bit. It’s going to be fun, and a great game.”
“This is a different game and a different battle,” added Lovell. “I don’t know that we can take much out of the three games we’ve had previous to [this one]. Like I said, this is a playoff game now – one and done – and we’re both starting off on equal terms here.”
Players to Watch
Buffalo – Mark Steenhuis
After hitting a bit of an offensive lull, Steenhuis ended the regular season strong with a season-high seven points (4+3) in last week’s loss to Rochester. With 20 games of NLL postseason experience, Steenhuis is one of a number of veterans the Bandits will be counting on to earn their first win in over two months.
Toronto – Josh Sanderson
Sanderson registered nine points (3+6) in Toronto’s first two games against Buffalo this season, but was held out of the Rock’s victory two weeks ago at Air Canada Centre. Sanderson is a seasoned veteran with 28 goals and 50 assists in 17 career playoff games.