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East Semifinal: Bandits will visit Rock to open 2014 NLL Playoffs

04/28/2014, 8:45am EDT
By Bandits beat writer Alan Rosenhoch & Rock beat writer Justin Millerson for NLL.com

Buffalo heads to Toronto for first-round East Semi on Saturday at 7pm ET

Playoffs: Toronto Rock host Buffalo Bandits at Air Canada Centre for East Semifinal on Saturday at 7pm ET. (Photo: Graig Abel)

The 2014 NLL Playoffs open this weekend when the Toronto Rock (9-9) host the Buffalo Bandits (8-10) at Air Canada Centre for the NLL East Division Semifinal on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the first-round single-game elimination matchup live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

During the playoff race, the Rock, with their midseason struggles still fresh in the minds of fans and players alike, defeated the Philadelphia Wings on their home floor to cement a playoff berth against Buffalo. While Toronto's playoff opponent was decided over a month ago, it wasn't until the final week of season that the location of the game was finally determined.

Following the April 12 win, the Rock who were in third place at the time, went on to win their final two games while the then second-place Bandits lost their remaining three. As result, the two teams swapped positions in the standings to give Toronto the elusive home playoff game.

“We're playing well right now and we're pretty happy about getting that home game,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “It's great for our fans and it's great for our team.”

Despite Toronto's late season success and Buffalo's historic losing streak of eight-straight games, coach Lovell acknowledged that the playoff season wipes the slate clean for those participating.

“It's a new season, I don't think [the season series] means anything right now, it's a clean slate,” said Lovell. “This is a different game and a different battle. It's a playoff game. It's 'one and done' and we're both starting on equal terms here.”

“Both teams are pretty similar, a lot of veterans," said Rock goalie Brandon Miller, who posted a 3-1 record since joining Toronto at the trade deadline on March 19. "Both teams are used to each other and not just this year, but in previous seasons."

In its entirety, the Rock's 2014 journey is surely one to remembered as ambivalent. After getting out to a 3-3 start to the season, Toronto lost their their footing and dropped six of the next eight games falling to a 5-9 record. The less than fortunate stretch led to the acquisitions of veteran goalie Brandon Miller, defender Jimmy Purves and former retiree Cam Woods ahead of the roster freeze on March 20.

On April 5, then tied with the Philadelphia Wings for the third and final playoff spot in the East Division, Toronto routed the Vancouver Stealth 17-9. The win didn't come without its casualties however, as star forward Garrett Billings tore his ACL in the game's second frame.

The loss of Billings led to the rise of youngster Rob Hellyer, who in the Rock's final four regular season games scored 31 points (8+23) earning him Player of the Month honours for April.

Hellyer's efforts, along with a vast improvement on the back end, helped lead Toronto to a four-game winning streak heading into the postseason.

“Our whole team is hoping to ride the wave of destiny a little bit," said Miller. "We've got something going a little bit here."

Of Toronto and Buffalo's three regular season games, the Rock dropped a pair of 12-10 losses on the road. In the third and final regular season matchup, Toronto snagged a convincing 13-9 win on home floor.

 The Rock are 13-4 on home floor in the playoffs all-time, which includes four Champion's Cup victories, and 2-1 in Toronto against Buffalo in the postseason.

A new season. That’s about all the Bandits can hang their hat on at this point.

After dropping the final eight games of the regular season, a franchise record, Buffalo still finds itself in the playoffs with a chance to win when it really counts and try to forget about this infamous streak.

“The way our season ended with the last eight games, the best way for us to approach it is to wipe the slate clean and it’s a fresh start,” said Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat. “Not a whole lot matters now except the game that’s on Saturday night.”

Game after game, the Bandits squandered one opportunity after another to secure the #2 seed in the East division and a home game to open the playoffs. Instead, they are forced to open on the road, where they won just two of seven games this season, the last of which was way back on Jan. 18 at Colorado.

Bandits rookie forward Joel Matthews has only been on the active roster since April 19, but he has made his presence felt, scoring both his first and second career NLL goals in Buffalo’s season finale loss at home to Rochester last Saturday.

“It was a dream come true,” Matthews said this week. “I had a long year with shoulder surgery and right before [training] camp this year I broke my foot, so it’s just been a long battle but I felt that I belonged in this league and if I battled hard enough and practiced hard enough then… hopefully the coaches would give me a chance and I’m just lucky that they trusted me enough to give me a shot.”

Even in his limited time with the club, Matthews has a strong sense of what his team is and a positive outlook for its capacity to succeed, even in the shadow of the record-setting losing streak.

“Coming up here in Toronto this Saturday, everyone’s got a fresh start,” the St. Catharines, ON native said. “We believe in the guys in our locker room, we believe in our coaches, we believe in our systems… it’s one game and whoever is better that one night [will win].”

There has been much talk of the Bandits failings on offense this throughout the losing streak, but this past week went in the face of that criticism as the Bandits put up 14 goals against one of the NLL’s top defensive teams in two-time defending champion Rochester.

Whether or not the Buffalo offense can draw on that performance and find similar success in Toronto this Saturday will be a major factor in who will move on in the NLL playoffs and face Rochester in the East Division Finals.

Tickets for Saturday's game can be found by clicking here.

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