Buffalo Bandits (3-1) host Rochester Knighthawks (3-0) at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)
With both teams flying high, the Buffalo Bandits (3-1) host the undefeated back-to-back champion Rochester Knighthawks (3-0) at First Niagara Center for their "Thruway Rivalry" matchup on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
While still early in the season, the game takes on added importance, as the winner will take sole possession of first place in the NLL’s East Division.
Riding a three-game winning streak, Buffalo knows its toughest test of the year so far comes this weekend.
“It’s the litmus test, I guess,” said Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich. “Rochester is the best in the league, they’re back-to-back champs, so this is going to let us know how far we still have to go before we can be talked about in the same sentence as teams like that.”
The recent success from Buffalo has been led by strong offensive contributions from defensemen like Steve Priolo and transition players like Andrew Watt. Priolo, whose previous career high was seven points, already has 10 points (5+5) in just four games this season.
The team’s offensive units have been playing well, but not quite up to expectations.
“I think our defense and transition game is really starting to gel,” Dietrich commented. “We’re hoping that our offense is eventually going to catch up to the ‘D’ and the transition and play to their capabilities.”
Veteran defenseman Billy Dee Smith has seen plenty of different offensive units in his 11 seasons as a Bandit, so he knows a thing or two about how to beat a tough, physical defense like the one they will face on Saturday.
“We’ve struggled against Rochester’s defense the last couple years,” Smith admitted. “They’re so good at playing the wall, offensively we’ve got to get to the middle of the floor…The biggest thing is to get the ball moving east and west for our offense to get some good looks on [Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc].
“To do that they’re going to have to get into the dirty areas of the floor and muck it up a little bit.”
Bandits captain John Tavares sat out last week’s 16-9 road victory over Colorado after ‘tweaking’ an injury in practice. Dietrich suggested it was just precautionary and that he should be available for Saturday’s game, though he is still considered a game-time decision.
To add a little more intrigue to a game that requires no more, this is the first time these teams will meet since Rochester eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention on the last day of the 2013 regular season, in what was essentially a playoff game for both teams.
So will that give the Bandits players a little more motivation on Saturday?
“I think you try to use anything, but I think any time you play a two-time champ like Rochester that’s enough motivation as it is,” Smith said. “Everybody’s going to be watching and gauging to see how far you’ve got to go and how far you’ve come.
“So I think we’ll be fired up no matter what.”
Rochester will only have to make a short trip west on the NYS Thruway for their Week 5 matchup, the first of four meetings between the rivals this season.
The Knighthawks are coming of another stellar defensive effort against the Toronto Rock, having defeated the Rock 12-8 at home last weekend on Jan. 18. According to head coach Mike Hasen, the Knighthawks' strong defensive effort to start this season is not simply due to having goalie Matt Vinc in between the pipes.
“'V' is only as good as the guys in front of him,” Hasen said. “Right now these guys are playing extremely well... they're limiting guys' quality looks.”
As the NLL's best defense so far this year, the Knighthawks have held all of their opponents to single-digit goals this season, the only team in the league to do so.
Vinc currently leads the league in Goals Against Average with a 7.67 GAA, one of only two goalies in the league under 10.00 (the other being Aaron Bold of the Edmonton Rush). Vinc also has only seen 115 shots through three games, leading to a .833 save percentage, which also leads the league.
Knighthawks defenseman Scott Self, who played several seasons with the Bandits before coming to Rochester at the trade deadline last year, knows what lies ahead on Saturday night.
“First place on the line heading into Banditland,” Self said. “We're just looking forward to a great game and a great atmosphere.”