By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
Coming off two of their bigger road wins in recent memory, the Buffalo Bandits will again be tested twice, this time during a pivotal back-to-back weekend against a pair of divisional foes.
With first place in the East Division on the line, the resurgent Bandits (4-3) visit the New England Black Wolves (4-2) on Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena before hosting the Georgia Swarm (3-3) on Saturday at KeyBank Center.
After a 16-14 statement win in Rochester over the Knighthawks this past Saturday keyed by seven unanswered goals in the second half, Buffalo’s offense continues to show consistency, helping the team to victory in three of its last four games.
As the Bandits’ top offensive threat, Dhane Smith has emerged as an early NLL MVP candidate. The six-year veteran, who won the award in 2016, is tied for third in league scoring with 47 points (15+32) in seven games after posting a combined 20 points over his past two outings.
Buffalo’s prized rookie Josh Byrne suddenly seems poised to break out as well. The 23-year-old’s five-goal performance in Rochester, where he demonstrated his impressive athleticism and scoring touch, showed off the talent that helped make him the first overall pick in last year’s draft.
Byrne, who leads all rookies with 25 points (11+14), ranks just outside the NLL’s top 25 scorers. However, in a league with a notorious learning curve for first-year pros, his ability to put up such solid numbers early in his career projects well for his future ceiling.
On pace for 28 goals and 64 points, Byrne’s production would be nearly identical to that of the Swarm’s Lyle Thompson in 2016. A fellow first-overall selection, Thompson followed up his 60-point and 27-goal rookie year with a league-high 116 points and 45 goals last year en route to the NLL and Champion’s Cup MVP awards.
Before the Bandits take on Thompson and the defending champion Swarm, they must first focus on 2015 NLL MVP Shawn Evans and the Black Wolves, with tightening up on defense a point of emphasis heading into the weekend.
Allowing an average of 14 goals per game, second-most in the league, Buffalo is tasked with finding ways to help goaltender Alex Buque on top of just providing goal support. Buque, who got the job done with 45 saves against the Knighthawks, still has room for improvement and could benefit from a more concerted effort to slow down the opposition and pace of play.
Deeper analytics courtesy of TLN’s Moneyball Lacrosse show that the Bandits have allowed the most goals of any team in transition (28) and unsettled defense (47) while also yielding league-high shooting percentages in both of those situations.
Enter Monday’s trade with the Vancouver Stealth where Buffalo acquired transition player Thomas Hoggarth in exchange for forward Pat Saunders, the odd man out on the Bandits’ left side after Byrne, Jordan Durston and Mitch Jones.
Hoggarth, the 20th overall selection in 2015, has appeared in 24 games across three seasons with the Stealth. At 6’3” and 205 lbs., the 22-year-old provides added depth for a Buffalo defense left somewhat thin by injuries to Matthew Bennett and Mark Steenhuis.
A strong start will be crucial for the Bandits as the Black Wolves and Swarm are each 2-0 when scoring first and both unbeaten when leading after the first quarter. In order to seize control of the top spot in the East, Buffalo will have to find a way to win in New England against a Black Wolves squad with a 3-0 record at home this year.
Up front, New England is led by Evans with 35 points (11+24) and Kevin Crowley’s team-best 15 goals while newcomer Stephan Leblanc has contributed nicely with 18 points (7+11) in five games since being dealt from Toronto in January.
Defensively, former Bandit David Brock joins Buffalo’s Steve Priolo and Nick Weiss near the top of the league’s scoring list among defenders with five goals. Black Wolves goaltender Aaron Bold, traded from the Saskatchewan Rush over the summer, will try to regain his All-Pro form. After allowing single-digit goals in three-straight wins, Bold was chased in New England’s last game, a 21-9 loss in Toronto two weeks ago.
Friday’s game marks the first of three meetings between Buffalo and New England this season. The Bandits went 1-2 against the Black Wolves last year, splitting the two games in Connecticut, both of which were decided by just one goal.
Georgia, which swept the three-game series with Buffalo in 2017, will make its only trip of the year to Banditland on Saturday before the teams meet again in Gwinnett in mid-March.
Watch this weekend’s games live on NLLTV.com or tune in on the radio Friday on ESPN 1520 AM in Buffalo and on WGWE 105.9 FM in Salamanca. On Saturday, listen live on WBEN 930 AM in Buffalo in Buffalo and WGWE. Faceoff for both contests is set for 7:30 p.m.