The Buffalo Bandits (3-2) host the Rochester Knighthawks (2-3) on Saturday at First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
The Buffalo Bandits (3-2) look to bounce back from last weekend’s loss to the Toronto Rock at home against their East Division rival Rochester Knighthawks (2-3), who are suddenly vying for a .500 record after an 0-3 start to the season, on Saturday at First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on the NLL on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.
Most of Buffalo’s games this season have been extremely tight, with one or two goal margins in all but one contest. When games are so close, disciplined play and special teams execution usually mean the difference between victory and defeat.
“We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by taking untimely penalties,” said Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour.
Buffalo has killed 43.8% of its penalty situations, good for 5th in the NLL, but has given up 32 penalty kill situations, second-worst in the league. With a below-average PK unit, giving up so many man-up opportunities is not a recipe for success.
Coach Kilgour’s defensive system has always been built on aggressive play and forcing the issue, but they know that aggressiveness must be balanced with discipline.
Bandits transition player Mark Steenhuis is known more for his ability to rack up offensive numbers than his stout defensive play, but since last season, the coaching staff has focused his role on the defensive end of the floor.
Steenhuis is confident that a balance of scoring and defense can be achieved.
“The way our defense is set up, it gives us the ability in between the whistles to play pretty much as hard and physical, within the rules, as we want,” Steenhuis said. “We have a lot of leeway in that physical aspect, it’s just controlling it and making sure that it’s in the body and not below [the waist] or up top in the head where we’ve been getting ourselves in trouble.
“It just comes down to running our defense and being disciplined when we do that.”
Buffalo underwent significant turnover since last season, infusing the club with more youngsters than it’s had in several years. But it’s not just the young guys who have been streaming to the box, as veterans like Billy Dee Smith have also been struggling to stay on the floor.
“Billy is a tremendous player. He can match up against any guy in the league,” Kilgour said. “That’s part of the frustration is that he doesn’t need to be taking the penalties that he’s been taking.”`
Rochester, the NLL’s defending champion, came into the weekend having finally won its first game of the 2013 season, a defensive battle that saw them eke out a 7-6 win over the Washington Stealth.
Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc earned NLL Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance, making 42 saves on 48 shots. This is already the second time this season that Vinc has earned this honor, as he earned the distinction in Rochester’s season-opening loss in Washington.
“It was a bit of a relief,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen about the win. “Both defenses were very tight, not allowing a lot of opportunities and the goalies were dynamite when they had to be.”
The Knighthawks are coming off a decisive 20-10 road win over the Philadelphia Wings during their 11 a.m. Friday matinee, the most goals scored (20) and largest margin of victory (10) by an NLL team so far this season. Vinc finally got goal support from his offense and was again strong in net with an impressive 49 saves on 59 shots.
Rochester forward Dan Dawson, who had just 11 points (1+10) entering the weekend, doubled his point total for the season with an 11-point (4+7) breakout performance on Friday against his former team.
The early start time on Friday would have allowed Rochester to get into their normal gameday routine prior to the second leg of the doubleheader, but the inclimate weather in the Northeast cancelled their flight home and forced them to take a bus back to Western New York.
This will be the second meeting between these two clubs this season, with Buffalo taking the first meeting on Tracey Kelusky’s game-winning behind-the-back goal with just 11.8 seconds left on the clock.
“We had opportunities in the first game [against the Bandits],” Hasen said. “They played quite well but we also made a lot of mistakes that I think we’ve cleaned up a little bit. We’re looking for our best players to be our best players, simply put.”
With the cities of Buffalo and Rochester just 90 minutes apart on the Interstate-90, the second edition of the "Thruway rivalry" should have the same playoff-like atmosphere that fans are accustomed to.
“All the guys get super excited for these [rivalry] games,” Steenhuis said. “It should play out for a real nice game in Buffalo on Saturday night.”
The Bandits will be without the services of captain John Tavares, the NLL's all-time leading scorer, who will miss his second-straight game with a calf injury.