By Aaron Garland
Niagara Gazette — The Buffalo Bandits have grown quite accustomed to playing close games in which the result is in doubt until the final buzzer this season. If records are any indication, tonight should be no different.
Buffalo (3-1) welcomes to town the Toronto Rock, who currently holds first place in the National Lacrosse League's East Division at a league-best 4-1.The teams will do battle at 7:30 p.m. at the First Niagara Center, as the Bandits can take over the Rock’s spot atop the standings with a win.
Buffalo is riding a three-game winning streak — all 1-goal affairs that were won on late-game goals. Toronto has won two straight after losing to Philadelphia on Jan. 19.
The apparent parity between the two early on this season, coupled with a rivalry that added another chapter in the Rock’s 7-6 win over Buffalo in the East semifinals last postseason could make for another nail-biter.
“The Toronto Rock-Buffalo Bandit rivalry speaks for itself, so it shouldn’t be any different than any of the other time we match up win one another,” said Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson during the weekly NLL coaches conference call. “It’s going to be hard fought, and we’re sure that (Bandits head coach) Darris (Kilgour) is going to have his guys ready for us.”
Kilgour said the same thing of Toronto.
“We know they’re going to be prepared, we know it’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Kilgour said.
An added twist to the game is Rock defenseman Chris White’s return to “Banditland.” The former Bandits’ captain signed with Toronto as a free agent this past offseason after spending the previous eight years in Buffalo.
Though the decision to switch teams wasn’t an easy one, the 32-year-old White decided he wanted to play closer to his home in Peterborough, Ontario.
“It was a very tough decision, I would say one of the most difficult ones of my playing career,” White said. “Being with Buffalo for eight years, I learned a lot under Darris and (assistant coach) Rich (Kilgour) and all my teammates there … but it was a move to get a little closer to home with the opportunity that Toronto presented me. It was an opportunity that, at this time in my career, I just couldn’t pass up.”
White was one of many former Bandits to find a new city to play in this year, as Buffalo completed a roster overhaul before the season. One of the fresh faces is defenseman Glen Bryan, who spent the first two years of his career with Toronto. He will now get a taste of the other side of the rivalry.
“He’s a very smart player, gives a great effort and he uses his head when he plays the game,” Kilgour said of Bryan. “He can read the play and not just react to the play. So we’re very pleased overall to have him part of the team.”
Kilgour feels the new make-up of the team can be advantageous tonight, because the Rock often tries to play a tight game.
“I think this year we might be a little bit more athletic than we have in the past, so maybe we’ll try and play a little bit more up-tempo, and push the flow of the game as much as we can,” Kilgour said.
Though the wins are coming, the Bandits’ defense has still been shaky. They will receive an added boost tonight, however, when All-Star defenseman Billy Dee Smith makes his season debut. He missed the first two games serving a suspension, and the latter two due to injury.
Smith will look to help sure up a struggling backend that includes goaltender Anthony Cosmo, who Kilgour named the starter against Toronto. The gaffes in the defensive zone have irked Kilgour, but the team is at least finding ways to win.
“Obviously, giving up 13 (goals) a game, I’m not real pleased with that,” Kilgour said. “We need to fix up the back door a little bit. But other than that, very pleased with the overall team so far.”
The Bandits will be without captain John Tavares, who will miss the game with a calf injury.