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Back in Banditland: Toronto heads down to Buffalo for round two

01/30/2014, 10:00am EST
By Bandits beat writer Alan Rosenhoch & Rock beat writer Justin Millerson for NLL.com

Bandits take on rival Rock on Saturday live on TSN2 (Canada) & ESPN3 (U.S.)

Buffalo Bandits (4-1) host Toronto Rock (2-2) for rematch at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

The Buffalo Bandits (4-1), riding a four-game winning streak that has them atop the NLL East Division, head into Saturday night’s matchup with the Toronto Rock (2-2) at First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on TSN2 in Canada and on ESPN3 in the United States.

When Buffalo last faced the Rock on Jan. 10, the Bandits were 0-1 coming off an embarrassing opening night defeat at home to the Philadelphia Wings. After one half, it seemed much of the same, as Buffalo trailed Toronto 6-2.

The second half was a completely different story and serves as the turning point for the Bandits season thus far. Buffalo stormed back, ultimately defeating the Rock 12-10 and sparking the current four-game streak.

“We weren’t playing very well in the first half of that game against Toronto,” said Bandits forward Ryan Benesch, who currently leads the team in scoring with 27 points (7+20). “We just needed to get back in the locker room and sit down and get back into the game plan… when we stick to the game plan that the coaches lay out for us, we’re in pretty good shape.”

While the win turned the favor of the Bandits season around, the loss for the Rock has done them no such favors.

After winning their opener handily over Calgary on Jan. 3, the Rock have since lost to Buffalo and Rochester in consecutive weeks, scoring a total of only 18 goals between the two games.

“I think we need more production from myself, Kasey [Beirnes] and Garret [Billings] goal-wise,” admitted Rock forward Josh Sanderson on his team’s recent offensive struggles. “We had a good opening game against Calgary, had a decent start against Buffalo and then it’s tailed off a bit.

“We have to be better [on offense], there’s no doubt about that.”

Sanderson looked inwardly at the way his team’s offensive unit helped Buffalo turn the tide in the first meeting.

“We turned the ball over and took some bad shots and that turned the game around,” Sanderson said. “We didn’t play smart enough… we gave them life and they took advantage of it and they were better than us that night.”

On the other hand, the Bandits made it clear how well they could play through the first 55 minutes against Rochester last Saturday night, when the Bandits led 11-5 and appeared to be cruising towards a blowout victory over an East division rival.

But Buffalo faltered late, allowing Rochester to climb back into the game, with the Bandits just barely holding on for an 11-10 victory.

“A win is a win. I would say we were almost lucky to have that win because we gave up in the fourth quarter, we kind of stopped playing our game,” Benesch said.

Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich has pointedly said that he believes the Buffalo offense was not playing to its potential, especially relative to the defense, transition and goaltending.

His offensive unit did impress last week, however.

“I thought our offense was real good for three quarters last week [against Rochester],” Dietrich said. “I think our team as a whole let down in the fourth quarter, but I thought the offense came to play.”

Toronto's second game of the weekend is marked as a mission of redemption against the Bandits.

For now, the Bandits can reserve bragging rights with the Week 3 victory over the Rock in their pocket.

“It's going to be a tough matchup, it's always tough to go into Buffalo in that environment, but we're looking forward to it and hopefully we can make for what we did in there last time,” said Rock head coach John Lovell.

For the Rock, the Week 3 loss has been regarded as one that got away. After a promising start – which included a 4-0 first quarter – the Rock completely fell apart in the second half. Buffalo outscored Toronto 10-4 in the game's final 19 minutes en route to the victory.

Since the win, Buffalo has found themselves on an impressive run, a sure sign of change from last season's struggles under the reign of former head coach Darris Kilgour. The Bandits, now under Troy Cordingley, have won four straight games including the win over Toronto. The next three victories came against Philadelphia, Colorado and most recently Rochester.

“I watched the Buffalo and Rochester game on Saturday [Week 5], Buffalo is playing very well in just about every area,” said Lovell.

“The Buffalo and Toronto rivalry speaks for itself. No matter what year it is, they're always tough games,” said Sanderson.

The game will also be the second time Lovell will face off against his predecessor and former ally Cordingley. Although the two coaches stood together in Toronto for four season (Lovell the assistant to then head coach Cordingley), Lovell downplays the personal matchup.

“I don't think coaching against [Cordingley] is different than coaching against any other guy,” said Lovell.

The Rock will be happy to welcome back veteran defender Bill Greer to the lineup who has been absent since leaving the floor against Calgary in Week 1.

“We're happy to have Billy [Greer] back with us, he had a great first half against Calgary and we need his veteran presence,” said Lovell.

In the first game of their back-to-back weekend, the Rock defeated the visiting Vancouver Stealth (2-4) by a score of 17-12 before a crowd of 11,234 at Air Canada Centre on Friday night.

Garrett Billings scored five goals while Josh Sanderson and Stephan Leblanc also stood tall as the trio each had eight or more points to help the Rock earn their second win of the season.

“It was a character win for us,” said Toronto Rock head coach John Lovell. “I didn't like the start we had, but we stuck to the plan in terms of being willing to work shift after shift.”

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