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Winter Swarm Warning: Buffalo hosting Minnesota for East tilt

03/03/2014, 4:15pm EST
By Bandits beat writer Alan Rosenhoch & Swarm beat writer Maria Jollie for NLL.com

Buffalo looks to continue reign atop division, Minnesota trying to dig out

The Buffalo Bandits (6-2) host the Minnesota Swarm (2-7) at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

After two weekends off, the Buffalo Bandits (6-2) get back into action as they host the desperate Minnesota Swarm (2-7) at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

This will be the first meeting of the year between the East Division opponents, whose seasons could not have gotten off to a more divergent start.

The Bandits, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2014 NLL season thus far, sit alone atop the East Division, a half-game ahead of Rochester. Minnesota meanwhile, sits alone in the basement, wondering what’s gone so wrong in the first half of its season.

“We’ve been playing pretty well through the first eight games of the season,” said Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour. “You hate to get the time off when you’re rolling pretty good. We had a couple good weeks of practice and we’re chomping at the bit.”

It’s a tough situation for the coaching staff, who had to determine how best to utilize the time off while keeping the team in ‘game shape’.

“Troy [Cordingley, Bandits head coach] did a great job with the three weeks between games,” Kilgour said. “The first week we pretty much just gave them the week off and told them to heal up and be ready to come back [for practice] that following Tuesday and be ready to go hard.

“Troy really put them through the paces on that Tuesday, just an all-around running practice, trying to get our legs back going. Then the last two practices we’ve prepared for Minnesota and working on our own systems again.”

As well as this season has gone for Buffalo, especially coming off their franchise-worst 6-10 record from the previous season, the first half of the 2013 campaign was pretty similar.

In 2013, Buffalo had a 5-3 record at the midway point and sat a mere half-game out of first place in the East. Following a heartbreaking late-game loss to Philadelphia in week nine, the team imploded, losing all but one of its final seven games and missing the playoffs.

Having experienced that as assistant coach last season, Kilgour recognizes that despite their current 6-2 record, the Bandits have a long way to go.

“We’ve been talking about that a lot this year, not so much bringing up last year, but about maintaining our focus and not worrying about our record or what happened in the past, just concentrate on going 1-0 every week,” Kilgour said. “Everything else you’ve got to just block out and focus on the task at hand. All you can do is play the game that you have that weekend.”

For a team with several veteran players, the time off is a welcome opportunity to rest nagging injuries and general soreness. The Bandits should be near 100% against the Swarm. Transition player Andrew Watt needs another week or two as he recovers from a separated shoulder and Kilgour shared that defenseman Billy Dee Smith is fighting ‘achilles tightness’, so his status for Saturday is questionable.

The contest also marks the first game for Bandits forward Ryan Benesch against his former team after coming to Buffalo in an offseason trade.

Meanwhile, the Swarm continue their season with a sense of urgency as they pursue a playoff spot in the East Division. A win against the Wings two weeks ago was a step in the right direction but Minnesota is mindful of the persistence needed to finish out in the top three. The young team will need to devote maximum effort to the entire game against the first place Buffalo team.

“The Philadelphia game was great to a get win,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “But we still got off to a real slow start like we’ve been doing.”

The team is coming off a week break and hope to emerge with enough force to charge through an entire game. The intensity of a meshing offense and defense is needed - something Minnesota hasn’t been able to connect in all four quarters of a single game.

“I think if we put a complete game together both at the front and at the back, then we’ll be in a lot better situation,” said Sullivan.

The Swarm did not picture a losing record for the first half of their season and the young team is ready to fight for every win. This Saturday’s game against Buffalo will have a significant impact on the standings. Minnesota currently holds the 5th position in the East, standing 1.5 games back from the 3rd place Toronto Rock and 4.5 games back from the division leading Bandits.

“Where we are right now in the standings isn’t acceptable to anybody,” said Sullivan. “The great thing is that the players are calling it out amongst themselves.”

Despite not being able to outscore their opponent in the first quarter of any game this season, the team has shown sparks of dominance by completing one or two particularly commanding quarters. The Swarm have had recent success with special teams, scoring 5 goals on 5 power plays in their last outing.

“I think the guys have stepped it up quite a bit,” said Sullivan. “I think they’re focused.”

The Swarm will look to both the veterans and rookies to continue to step up, as NLL Rookie of the Month Logan Schuss did in their last outing at Philadelphia. The rookie forward had an explosive game, scoring five goals with two assists.

“Guys like Callum Crawford have helped him out quite a bit in trying to get through some of the struggles he had early,” said Sullivan. “He’s playing with a lot more confidence. I know he’s going to compete at a higher level every game.”

As they prepare for the game on Saturday, the Swarm are focused on combining all their talent into a single team effort. Minnesota will face a very rested Buffalo team that is anxious to get back on the field and determined to hold their reign on the East Division.

“Buffalo’s a tough place to play,” said Sullivan. “We’ve had very limited luck there but I think luck’s going to have nothing to do with it this weekend.”

“We’re going to have to make sure we’re ready to go,” said Swarm goalie Zach Higgins. “It’s do or die time.”

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