The Rochester Knighthawks (1-0) open up the 2017-18 edition of the Thruway Rivalry on Saturday December 23rd when they welcome the Buffalo Bandits (1-0) to the Blue Cross Arena at 7:30 pm ET. The Knighthawks return to action after a bye week following their home opener 17-6 over the Calgary Roughnecks. Meanwhile, the Bandits downed the Toronto Rock in their home opener 13-9.
This marks the first time the two teams meet in arguably the best rivalry in the NLL. While the fans and players alike always make these games fiery, this year might up the ante for a number of reasons. Both teams missed the playoffs last season, with the Bandits getting the first overall pick in the 2017 NLL Draft and Rochester right behind with the second pick. Both teams want to get back to the playoffs where they feel they belong and whoever gets to 2-0 after the final horn on Saturday gets an early leg up for that.
Yet even more immediate is that Billy Dee Smith, 15-year NLL veteran who played his entire career with the Bandits, will suit up for the first time in his career against his former team. Rochester took little time in adding Smith to their defensive corps, which was an easy decision for Smith.
“They definitely welcomed me with open arms,” said Smith after his first game in the purple and teal. “I’ve been battling with the guys it seems nine weeks now. So the first time was a little nerve-wracking, you know. Coming out here was a little easier than I would have expected. Ultimately, I’ve been battling against these guys for 15 years before joining the team. It’s one of those things, you play hard enough against somebody, you get mutual respect.
I’ve got a lot of friends on that team, on my team, so it was an easy decision to decide to come here. Vno being one of my best friends since we were kids. Cody (Jamieson) and Sid (Smith), my little brothers, been playing with them in Six Nations since they were down in Juniors.”
“Let’s just say I’m glad he’s on my side now,” said Joe Resetarits after the opener, who played with Smith as a Bandit before joining Rochester before the trade deadline in 2015. “Glad he’s put on the teal and purple now. But his presence, he’s been the scariest guy in the NLL ever since he’s been in here. Now the fact he came over here, and as you see tonight, he was a difference maker. He’s been the best defenseman in the world, and it showed tonight, even as his age goes on, he still gets better and better. Adding him, a guy like that with his leadership, he’s won championships. Adding that presence back there, that’s a confidence-booster for everybody.
For Resetarits, playing against the team he grew up rooting for is always a treat. Yet this game could be different for him as he could notch his 100th NLL goal against the Bandits.
“It’d feel good,” Resetarits said. “I honestly didn’t know it was that close until someone brought it up. It’d be good. It’s a bitter rivalry between the two teams, and any time you get to contribute against such a good team. It’ll be in my mind, obviously, but as long as we get that win at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. That’s a divisional game. We get these wins early, it’ll pay dividends at the end of the year.”
Adding Smith was not the only boost the Knighthawks received in their season opener. The return of 2014 NLL Most Valuable Player Cody Jamieson transformed the league’s worst offense from 2017. The lack of scoring (175 goals) was arguably the biggest reason Rochester missed the playoffs, and Jammer’s absence was unquestionably the biggest reason for the offensive struggles. With his return, the offense exploded for 17 goals, better than any game during 2017.
As for Buffalo, new goalie Alex Buque held the Rock to nine goals on 64 shots. They will depend on him to halt a suddenly-potent Rochester offense led by Dan Dawson who posted six points (3 + 3) during the season opener. However, Buque was quick to deflect praise following his Bandits debut.
“I have a great set of guys out there, a tough defense. They blocked shots for me when I needed it and they were able to pick some passes off and go the other way. We looked fast,” said Buque to NLL.com after Buffalo’s season opener. “I was able to see the ball all the way through, the team helped me see the ball.”
The Bandits defense not only helped out Buque when it came to keeping the ball out of Buffalo’s net but was able to help by putting the ball in the back of the Rock’s net. Nick Weiss put in two goals and Mark Steenhuis playing out the back door scored once as well.
Rochester will have to watch for that after surrendering goals to Roughnecks defenders and transition players in the opener. Without Matt Vinc’s stellar night in net (40 saves on 46 shots), Calgary could have notched even more goals in transition after generating a number of breakaways and odd-man chances.
This first matchup between the two bitter rivals, as Resetarits rightfully described them, comes so early in the season that neither team can be 100-percent sure how either team is going to perform. Yet when the Knighthawks welcome Buffalo to the Blue Cross Arena, it is always a show.