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Playoff preview: Bandits seeking to stop slide on the road at Rock

04/14/2014, 12:45pm EDT
By NLL.com

Buffalo visits Toronto trying to clinch home field for their first-round matchup

Buffalo Bandits (8-7) visit Toronto Rock (7-9) for playoff preview at Air Canada Centre on Friday at 7pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

After clinching a postseason spot last weekend, the Toronto Rock (7-9) host the Buffalo Bandits (8-7) at Air Canada Centre on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the game, a preview of their first-round playoff matchup, live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

It's still a tall order, but a home playoff game can be awarded to Toronto if they win their final two games of season with the Bandits losing their remaining three.

While fate isn't completely in their hands, the Rock can still keep the pressure on Buffalo by handing them a sixth-straight loss a night before the Bandits have to take on the division-leading Rochester Knighthawks on the road.

All playoff implications aside, Friday night's matchup will be the third time the two rival teams face each other, and if the first two games give any indication of how this final regular season matchup may go, the Rock could be in tough. Toronto fell to the Bandits 12-10 both times and in each of those games, the Rock gave up a substantial run yielding a come-from-behind victory.

To boot, opposing goalie Anthony Cosmo was spectacular in both matchups. Over the two games, Cosmo made a combined 91 stops on 111 Rock shots for a .819 save percentage.

“It's been a long time since we've played them, but I think they have a tremendous transition game and we have to be better at [defending] that,” said Toronto Rock head coach John Lovell. “We were hurt by a multiple-goal run both times.”

“For us, it's important to know that we can beat them. And if we do so on Friday night, it keeps the pressure on them to win some games in order to host that playoff game,” said Toronto Rock captain Colin Doyle.

Friday night's game will also mark the second-straight week the Rock will suit up without their star player Garrett Billings due to a torn ACL. Just days after the league's top point producer was ruled out for the rest of the season, Toronto rallied as a team and defeated the Philadelphia Wings on home floor to clinch a playoff spot. The Rock's offensive attack, though limited, was spread out as four players (Rob Hellyer, Colin Doyle, Stephan Leblanc, Kasey Beirnes) scored four or more points in the 10-9 victory.

“It's unfortunate and we'll sorely miss him and what he brings to the game, but we really believe in the guys we have left. We won't replace his point production, but we can make up enough to win some games,” said Doyle. “We're going to get through without him.”

A big help amid the Billings injury could be Toronto's immense improvement on defence as of late. Immediately after a four game stretch that saw the Rock surrender 58 goals (14.5 goals against per game), Toronto has put together three-straight strong defensive efforts.

With the acquisition of goaltender Brandon Miller at the trade deadline along with a couple subtle roster moves on back end, the Rock have given up just 31 goals over their last three games (10.3 goals against per game). What's more, Toronto has not given up more than two-straight goals in the game since their 13-10 loss to the Edmonton Rush on March 30.

“I don't think there any magic out there to stop the run, I just think we've played more consistently at both ends of the floor,” said Lovell. “We're not giving up as much on transition as we have on occasion, defensively we've been more consistent and I think we're playing well as a unit.”

What is that familiar feeling that the citizens of ‘Banditland’ are currently feeling? It’s a feeling of free fall and until the past three seasons, it’s a something Buffalo fans have seldom felt.

The Bandits are on the verge of yet another six-game losing streak, an unenviable distinction they have earned in each of the past two seasons and one that they had never before sustained in the franchise’s illustrious history.

But here they are again, losers of five-straight and desperate to stem the tide.

“It’s been ugly the last little while, there’s no doubt about that,” said Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich. “At the beginning of the season we were finding ways to win and it seems now we’re finding ways to lose.”

Fortunately for the Bandits, their red-hot 8-2 start has them safely in a playoff spot. But they have yet to secure a home playoff game, a feat that they would achieve with a win over Toronto Friday night.

Actually, Buffalo simply needs to win one of its final three games or have Toronto lose either of its two final games to secure an opening round matchup in Buffalo against the Rock.

“Saying that this weekend coming up for us is a big weekend for us is a bit of an understatement,” Dietrich admitted. “We’d rather play [Toronto] in Buffalo [in the first round of the playoffs] than have to play them in Toronto; that’s what makes Friday night so big for us.”

Buffalo has owned the season series against Toronto thus far, winning both of the first two matchups by the same 12-10 score. Both of those games were played on Buffalo’s home turf however, underscoring the desire to open the playoffs at home.

Left-handed forward Mitch Jones is the latest addition for Buffalo, making his Bandits debut last week in the 10-9 loss at Minnesota. The second-year player, acquired from Vancouver at the draft, appeared in only three games in his rookie season, but he made a solid impact in his first in the orange and black, contributing a goal and two assists.

“My first game was a tough loss for us,” the Delta, BC native said. “I’ve been at practice for about three weeks now, so I’ve gotten the chance to fit in there and get some chemistry with the guys.”

The singular bright spot through the losing streak, and the entire season for that matter, has been the play of veteran goaltender Anthony Cosmo. The 14-year veteran is having a career year, leading the league in save percentage at .804, and is on the verge of breaking the all-time NLL record for saves in a single season.

Cosmo needs just 18 more saves to break the record of 662, set just last season by Rochester’s Matt Vinc. It should be noted that Friday’s game is the Bandits 16th, so the lengthened schedule is not a factor in Cosmo’s numbers.

“[Cosmo] has been our most valuable player throughout the year,” Dietrich said. “There’s games that we’ve won that maybe we shouldn’t have if it wasn’t for him and he’s made the defense play with more confidence.”

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