The Buffalo Bandits host the Toronto Rock on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET at First Niagara Center. With first place in the East Division on the line, former Bandits captain Chris White returns to Buffalo with Toronto for the first time. (Photo: Dale MacMillan
With one quarter of the 2013 National Lacrosse League regular season in the books, the Buffalo Bandits (3-1) and Toronto Rock (4-1) will play for first place in the East Division when the teams meet Saturday at First Niagara Center in Buffalo at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on TSN and TSN Mobile in Canada, ESPN3 in the U.S., and on YouTube outside North America.
The Rock own the best record in the NLL coming into the weekend, with the Bandits just a half-game back, placing added emphasis on an already-intense rivalry.
“The rivalry speaks for itself,” said Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “It shouldn't be any different than any other time we match up with one another. It's going to be hard fought.”
Buffalo is on a three-game winning streak, with all three wins coming by just one goal. While their offense is firing on all cylinders, the team is giving up almost 13 goals per game on average. That doesn’t sit well with defensive-minded Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour.
“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.”
Veteran defenseman Billy Dee Smith, who made his 2013 debut last Saturday after sitting out previous games due to both suspension and injury, agrees that there is work to be done on the defensive side of the floor.
“We have to tighten up,” Smith said. “We’ve been holding down the fort a little bit, good enough to win games, but I think there’s definitely room for improvement.”
Despite a shaky start that saw Buffalo’s starting goaltender Anthony Cosmo pulled early in the first two games of the year, and subsequent strong performances from backup Kurtis Wagar, Kilgour has placed very little blame on Cosmo, who will get the start again this weekend.
Saturday night marks the return of former Bandits captain Chris White to “Banditland,” where the defenseman spent eight seasons before signing with Toronto as a free agent this past offseason.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions 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.
“It was a move to get a little closer to home,” said the 32-year-old Peterborough, Ontario native. “It was an opportunity that, at this time in my career, I just couldn’t pass up.”
Although White is excited to return to a place that holds so many memories, he remains focused on the task at hand.
“I'm feeling a little bit of excitement,” White said. “But once you get on the floor, you’ve got to put those feelings and thoughts aside and focus on the game.”
White isn’t the only defenseman playing his first game against his former club, as the Bandits’ Glen Bryan spent the first two years of his career coming out the back door for the Rock.
Bryan is a clear representation of new Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich’s impact on the team, as Kilgour admits that Bryan does not fit the typical mold of a defender in his eyes.
“When we first picked up Bryan, all I saw was 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds,” Kilgour said. “We normally like to be a bit bigger coming out the back door, but the kid has come in and changed my mind.
“He’s a very smart player, gives a great effort and he uses his head when he plays the game. 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.”
Toronto is coming off a doubleheader weekend in which they earned two victories, both with strong defensive performances in the second half. After an up-and-down 13-12 home win against the Minnesota Swarm on Friday, Toronto followed it up with a convincing 11-7 road win against the defending champion Rochester Knighthawks last Saturday.
“I think on the defensive end, things are starting to come together,” White said. “We had a bit of a slow start against Minnesota, but when it came down to it, we seemed to hold the fort in front of [goaltender] Nick Rose. In Rochester, I thought we played 60 minutes of a hard-fought battle on defense and held a dynamic offense to one goal in the second half.”
This past weekend, Rock forward Garrett Billings scored his 100th career goal and recorded his 300th career point in just 52 games played, his fourth season in the NLL. The 26-year-old finished the weekend with 15 points (4+11) in two games.
“I'm certainly not surprised by his knowledge of the game and skill level and that he's reached those [milestones] as early as he has,” Sanderson said. “He's a good one now and I think he's going to have a great career in the league.”
The Bandits will be without a key member of their offense this weekend as captain John Tavares, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer, will be inactive due to a calf injury he suffered in last Saturday’s win over Philadelphia.
The negative effect of Tavares’ absence could be minimized, however, given the balanced attack that has represented the Buffalo offense so far this year. Seven different players have tallied at least four goals through the first four games, a balance the team has not seen in recent years.
“It always seems that with Toronto and Buffalo, it comes down to execution,” Kilgour said. “We know they’re going to be prepared and it will be a hard-fought game.”