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Winner gets in: Bandits and Knighthawks to lay it all on the line

04/16/2013, 2:00pm EDT
By Travis Larner, Knighthawks beat writer for NLL.com

Watch one of the most anticipated games of the season live on CBS Sports Network

Two of the NLL's biggest rivals, the Buffalo Bandits (6-9) host the Rochester Knighthawks (7-8) at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET with both teams fighting for a playoff berth in their 2013 NLL regular season finale. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

Two of the National Lacrosse League’s biggest rivals will fight for a playoff spot when the Buffalo Bandits host the Rochester Knighthawks at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET in their “winner gets in” 2013 NLL regular season finale. Watch one of the most anticipated games of the season live on CBS Sports Network and on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network outside North America.

A win would allow the defending champion Knighthawks (7-8) to clinch the second seed in the East Division and eliminate the Bandits from playoff contention. A Buffalo win and a Philadelphia loss would give the Bandits (6-9) the second seed.

A loss by Rochester wouldn’t automatically eliminate them from the playoffs, but if the Colorado Mammoth beat the Minnesota Swarm later that night as well, the Swarm would replace the Knighthawks as the fourth seed in the East.

“It’s going to be a huge battle and everybody knows what is on the line this weekend,” said Rochester head coach Mike Hasen.

The Knighthawks had a chance to clinch a playoff berth last weekend. After defeating Calgary on April 13, Rochester dropped its second game of the season to Edmonton on April 14.

“It’s always good to be in control of your own destiny,” said Knighthawks forward Mike Accursi. “If we go in there and play the way we know we can, we should have a good outcome. Having said that, Buffalo is a tough place to play, and I’m sure they’re going to have a big crowd. We need to be prepared for that and prepared for the runs they’re probably going to have and hopefully try to minimize those and stick to our game plan.”

Buffalo, on the other hand, had been excluded from most postseason conversations after a six-game losing streak, including a 21-7 dismantling by Minnesota on April 6. However, the Bandits used an eight-goal fourth quarter to defeat the Washington Stealth on the road last weekend, keeping their slim chances for a postseason berth alive.

“You try to avoid looking at all of the scenarios,” said Buffalo forward Shawn Williams. “You win and you’re in, that’s the bottom line. Wherever you end up playing in the next week, no one really cares to be honest. You just want to get in.”

Not only has the win over Washington rejuvenated the Bandits postseason hopes, but they lead the season series 2-1 against the Knighthawks. According to Williams, the atmosphere in the Buffalo locker room has drastically changed.

“Any time you lose that many in a row and win one, you gain some confidence,” Williams said. “The mood is great and given a chance to be alive, obviously everyone is excited.”

Bandits backup goalie Kurtis Wagar may earn his second consecutive start in net. Although he came off the bench on multiple occasions this year, Wagar made his first start of the season last weekend in Washington, filling in for Anthony Cosmo, who was out with a head injury. According to Buffalo assistant coach Rich Kilgour, Cosmo is still being evaluated.

“[Cosmo] took some shots after practice,” Kilgour said. “We’ll see how he feels after that. It’s still up in the air. [Wagar] had a great game, he really did. We still have to see what the doctors say about [Cosmo]. Come Saturday, we’ll go to the shootaround and see how he feels.”

Williams and the Buffalo offense will have to find a way around Rochester goaltender Matt Vinc. Vinc, a former All-Pro and two-time Goaltender of the Year, is only nine saves away from breaking Rob Blasdell’s 11-year record of 644 saves in a single season. He enters the last week of the regular season with a league-best 10.25 goals-against average, 636 saves and a .806 save percentage. He is likely to join Dallas Eliuk as the only other goaltender to lead the league in saves four times in his career and could become the only netminder to be crowned Goaltender of the Year for a third time.

“We’ve got to go into a tough environment and have a win,” Vinc said. “I think our guys are going to be up for the task. We want to play at home and we saw how much that helps our chances later on. We want to get in the playoffs first and get in there on the right foot. We need a ‘W’ in Buffalo.”

The game marks the 49th installment of their Thruway rivalry. The Knighthawks lead the series 27-21 while the teams have split the 22 games played in Buffalo.

With so much at stake, Saturday night’s game could be the most important regular season game ever played between the two teams. Don’t miss it.

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