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Thruway Rivalry: Knighthawks visit Bandits for Game One of East Finals

05/05/2014, 10:00am EDT
By Knighthawks beat writer Jeremy Pike & Bandits beat writer Alan Rosenhoch for NLL.com

Rochester continues three-peat quest in Buffalo tonight at 7:30pm ET

Rochester Knighthawks visit Buffalo Bandits for Game One of East Division Finals on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

The Buffalo Bandits host the Rochester Knighthawks for Game One of the East Division Finals at First Niagara Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch the Thruway Rivalry live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

The Knighthawks and the Bandits last squared off to end the regular season, a game that Rochester won 16-14 at the FNC. The Knighthawks won three out of four regular season meetings.

The Knighthawks got a week off after securing the top seed in the East Division playoff, which was beneficial in terms of avoiding the single-game elimination round. There were other benefits to the week off as well.

"It was good on our front," said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. "We had that extra week to heal some guys that were a little banged up... We had the opportunity to watch them [Buffalo] live as a team."

"I think we prepared well on the weekend to get ready for this first game with Buffalo," added Knighthawks defenseman Mike Kirk. "Any time you're playing in Buffalo, it's going to be a big game and we've got a lot on the line this weekend. I think we've prepared well and I think we're ready to go on Saturday night."

Rochester knows that they have to clean up issues that plagued them the last two games against Buffalo even though they won both.

"I think first and foremost that we need to make sure we're playing the 5-on-5 game," coach Hasen said. "That means getting our 'O' guys on the floor as quick as we possibly can, and at the same time... Getting our backdoor guys on the floor as quick as we can. No secret Buffalo likes to push the ball in transition and they're very good at it. The other one is the discipline side of things. We've got to make sure that we are disciplined. We can't be doing silly things."

The 2014 NLL Playoffs mark the first time where both the Division Finals and the Championship will be decided by a two-game series rather than single-game elimination.

"For us and for the league, anytime you're playing more often and you're front and center, especially in the playoffs, I think it's better," coach Hasen said. "It's an opportunity for the league to expand... And get the process better. More exposure, especially during playoff time, works for the league. Having the opportunity to play both home and away is good for both organizations... I think it's good. It's going to be a fun time. It also gives you a little something extra in the back pocket if you pull a stinker one night, you have a second chance."

If both teams win a game, there will be a 10-minute "mini game" after the conclusion of the second game to decide who wins the series.

"Don't want to get there," coach Hasen said. "To have your whole season end up in 10 minutes with some tired legs after playing, battling two weeks in a row. You hope you don't get there, but at the end of the day, it could be exciting for the game and for the league if it does come down to that."

Meanwhile, last weekend's sigh of relief can only last so long for the Bandits; there is more work to be done.

Coming off a 15-13 victory over Toronto in the East Division semifinal, a win that snapped a franchise-record eight game losing streak at the exact right time, the Bandits must gather themselves and prepare for a new and significant chapter in their epic Thruway rivalry with the Knighthawks.

“Obviously it’s a rivalry that’s been going on for a while now,” said Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat. “Part of it is due to the proximity of the two teams. But I think the fact that we’ve played each other four times [this season] and tendencies are tendencies… both teams know each other so well.”

Rochester won the season series 3-1, edging out Buffalo in the season finale 16-14 before a soldout crowd of 19,070 at First Niagara Center.

“It’s one of the best, if not the best, place to play in the league,” said Bandits transition player Andrew Watt. “Our fans come out and support in the masses and playing Rochester it gives the Rochester fans the chance to come up too and watch the game in our barn. It’s easy to feed off the momentum of the crowd when they get behind you.”

Buffalo’s offense struggled mightily throughout the losing streak, culminating in a four-goal output at Rochester on April 19; setting a franchise record for fewest goals scored in a regular season game.

But in their last two outings, the Bandits have scored 14 and 15 goals respectively, a significant turnaround that they look to build on heading into the two-game series with Rochester.

“I don’t think we have to revamp or change a whole lot,” said Teat, whose role has him primarily responsible for Buffalo’s offense. “Offensive guys are all about confidence and over the last couple games [our] guys have some confidence and you can tell when they’re shooting…Right now it has a lot to do with the guys playing together and feeding off each other and the other guys’ confidence.”

One thing is clear, the Bandits have quite the challenge ahead of them in a two-game series against the two-time defending champion Knighthawks.

“We realize we have to be at our absolute best to have a chance to beat these guys," Teat said. "They are the best team in the league and they’re the defending champs for a reason. They play their best lacrosse when it counts.”

Thankfully for Buffalo, the new playoff format allows them to open the series in front of their always-boisterous home crowd, presenting a key opportunity to seize momentum.

Watt summed it up best:

“It’s going to be a fun time with a great atmosphere in ‘Banditland’.”

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