Niagara Gazette — Something has to give tomorrow night at the First Niagara Center.
The Buffalo Bandits (3-2) haven’t been playing much defense this year, but poor defensive efforts have been covered up by a potent offense.
They currently rank third-last in the National Lacrosse League in goals against per game with 13 and goaltender Anthony Cosmo has been inconsistent. They've kept afloat by netting at least 12 goals in each of their last four games, winning three of them.
Tomorrow will be a big test for the Bandits, as they take on the defending NLL champion Rochester Knighthawks at 7:30 p.m. Despite Rochester’s record of 2-3, they have allowed the least amount of goals per game in the league. They also come in having won two straight, including doubling up the Wings, 20-10, in Philadelphia Friday afternoon.
If the Knighthawks’ stingy defensive play — led by goaltender Matt Vinc — continues tomorrow night, the Bandits could find themselves on a two-game skid. Vinc is second among goalies that have played at least 100 minutes in goals against average.
That, coupled with captain John Tavares missing his second straight game due to injury, will make it tough for the Bandits’ offense to bail out the defense again. However, they had no trouble scoring on one of the league’s hottest goalies in Toronto’s Nick Rose last game.
Buffalo lost Toronto at home last week, 14-12, due in large part to a pair of five-minute major penalties and an inability to come up with a defensive stop when needed. Both have been continuing issues all year.
"We need to play a little bit smarter and clean up our defensive side of the door,” Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said during the weekly NLL coaches conference call. "I'm still happy with what the offense is doing. So we're still a work in progress."
"We have to stay out of the penalty box — right now our penalty kill is not doing that great of a job," Kilgour added. "We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by taking untimely penalties."
Buffalo has owned this rivalry of late, though.
The Bandits defeated the Knighthawks, 13-12, Jan. 19 at Blue Cross Arena. Tracey Kelusky’s goal with 12 seconds remaining proved to be the difference in that affair. It also marked the fifth time in the last seven matchups between the teams that Buffalo came out on top.
"It's always a battle and we've come out with the short end of the stick for the most part the last couple years," Rochester head coach Mike Hasen said. “… We had opportunities that first game we played them this year. I think they played extremely well, but we also made quite a lot of mistakes that I think we kind of cleaned up a little bit. We're looking for a better effort, and we'll be a little bit tighter defensively.”
As good as the Knighthawks’ defense and goaltending has been, they have struggled to find the back of the net at times. Before their offensive explosion against Philadelphia, the Knighthawks ranked last in the league with 9.75 goals per game.
Even still, Rochester has proved in games like yesterday, they can be dangerous — especially against an erratic back end like the Bandits’. They are led by leading scorer Cody Jamieson, who has 10 goals and 14 assists. Dan Dawson, who had 11 points in yesterday’s game, is second on the team with 22 points on five goals and 17 assists.
Leading Buffalo’s balanced attack is Shawn Williams, who leads the team with 26 points and is fourth in the NLL with 21 assists. Rookie Dhane Smith leads the Bandits in goals (nine) and is second to Williams with 16 points.
Trying to avenge their first home loss of the season a week ago, the Bandits know the importance of this rivalry game between neighboring cities. A win would pole vault the Knighthawks into a tie with Buffalo for second place in the East.
"All the guys get super excited for these games, and there's obviously a lot on the line this weekend for us,” said Bandits transition player Mark Steenhuis. “Coming off a loss, we don't want to get another loss, especially against a division opponent.”