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Bandits and Rock set for another QEW East Conference Final

The Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock have seen a lot of each other over the last couple of years.

Last season, Toronto won two out of three games from Buffalo during the regular season, but the Bandits swept the East Conference Finals two games to none in dramatic fashion (Game 1 and Game 2 highlights from last season).

This season, Buffalo won two out of three during the regular season and now the two rivals are set for an East Conference Finals rematch starting with game one Friday night at KeyBank Center in Buffalo (7:30pm ET ESPN+, TSN, TSN+).

“There’s no secrets between the two clubs,” said Toronto Rock Head Coach Matt Sawyer. “We’ve played a lot of lacrosse against each other over the last couple of years so I’m sure it will be a great series. We know that we’re going to have our hands full.”

After a 13-5 regular season, the Rock punched their ticket to the Conference Finals with a 15-11 win over Halifax in a Quarterfinal game last Friday in Hamilton. The Bandits, the number one seed in the East Conference with a 14-4 record, easily disposed of the Rochester Knighthawks 20-8 this past Saturday in Buffalo, using a 12-4 second half to cruise to the win.

And now, a best two out of three series between two teams whose home arenas are separated by 66 miles, a quick trip involving the Queen Elizabeth Way and the Peace Bridge.

Here’s how the 2022-23 regular season series went between Toronto and Buffalo…

  • December 7th in Hamilton…Buffalo 11, Toronto 8
  • April 1st in Hamilton…Toronto 18, Buffalo 7
  • April 22nd in Buffalo…Buffalo 11, Toronto 10

And now, at least two more meetings in the playoffs for the latest chapter to this rivalry.

“It’s two great teams,” said Bandits forward Dhane Smith who recorded a ten-point game (3 goals and 7 assists) in the Quarterfinal win over Rochester.

“It’s never an easy battle when we play each other. They’re a really talented team from goaltender to defense to offense. At the end of the day, I think we’re a great team as well so it’s two great teams playing against each other and I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead.”

The series is a huge challenge for both teams who are loaded from the back end all the way to high-octane offenses up front.

Buffalo is loaded with offense and that showed with four players recording hat tricks against Rochester including Smith, Josh Byrne and Kyle Buchanan. Between the pipes, goalie Matt Vinc made 44 saves in his NLL record 40th playoff game.

“They’re a complete team,” said Sawyer. “It starts with their goaltender on out. They have a lot of firepower on offense and they have a big physical defense. We played them three times this year and played them in the playoffs last year. Usually, each game is just decided by one mistake here or there.”

As far as the Rock is concerned, they are a deep team as well and that is the case regardless of the availability of forward Tom Schreiber, who missed the Quarterfinal win over Halifax because of an upper-body injury and was placed on injured reserve prior to the game.

Without him, the Rock still found the back of the net fifteen times including three from Zach Manns and three from Corey Small.

“(Toronto is) a talented team with or without (Schreiber),” said Smith.  “Having Schreiber not in the lineup is a little bit tougher because you feel like you don’t know where the ball is going to be as much. We’re going to game plan just like he’s going to be in the lineup.”

While the Rock hasn’t provided an update on Schreiber’s status, it doesn’t appear likely that Schreiber will be available for this weekend.

“It’s just something that’s going to take some time to heal up,” said Sawyer.  “We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to play long enough this year that we’re going to see Tom again. There are times when you need to deal with adversity and it’s no secret what Tom means to this club. Our offense is driven by him.”

A unique dynamic to this series will be that games one and two will be played back-to-back with game one Friday in Buffalo and game two Saturday at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton (7pm ET ESPN+, TSN, TSN+) and then a game three, if necessary, is scheduled for Saturday May 20th back in Buffalo.

Playing critical games on consecutive days is definitely unique situation for the players.

“It’s different,” said Smith. “It’s kind of exciting to be honest. It will be fun to be a part of. We haven’t played back-to-back games like this since we were kids so as long as we stay healthy, we’ll have fun with it.”

“I think it’s great for the league that they’re doing this in the playoffs for the first time,” said Sawyer. “It creates excitement, especially here with Hamilton and Buffalo separated by an hour and a great opportunity for lacrosse fans to take in two great games on back-to-back-nights.”

The atmosphere for both games should be through the roofs at KeyBank Center and FirstOntario Centre as it’s a quick road trip for both fan bases.

That means a lot of Rock fans will invade Banditland on Friday night and then you’ll have fans from Buffalo making the drive north to Hamilton on Saturday.

“It will be awesome,” said Smith. “I know our fans travel really well and so do theirs. It’s going to be a packed house both ways so to play in front of our fans both home and away is exciting.”

While the back-to-back situation for the first two games has created a lot of intrigue and excitement, the focus is strictly on game one and how things unfold between two teams that can read each other like a book.

“In this situation, there’s no secrets between the two clubs,” said Sawyer.  “You put everything you can on the floor in game one and you deal with game two after that.”

And while there is mutual respect between the two teams, there is also a mutual dislike for each other.

“They don’t like us and we don’t like them so it’s one of those series that’s going to be rough but it’s two talented teams from top to bottom playing against each other,” said Smith.

The stakes are high.

The intensity will be high.

The fans are going to deliver an atmosphere second to none.

Bandits vs Rock is going to be a lot of fun!

NLL