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Stories/Op-Ed

Bandits Hit The Road To Keep Championship Hopes Alive

After losing a hard-fought Game 1 at First Niagara Center, the Buffalo Bandits will look to keep their championship aspirations alive on the road Saturday when they take on the Saskatchewan Rush in Game 2 of the Champion’s Cup Finals. 

If Buffalo is able to win on Saturday, the club will host a deciding Game 3 back at First Niagara Center on June 11. If the Bandits lose Game 2, their season will end just short of adding a fifth championship to the organization’s history and the Rush will earn back-to-back titles. 

Despite the pressure that comes with a must-win game, the Bandits are eager to get back on the floor Saturday. 

“We’re not nervous. We’re anxious,” said Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour. “They’re in a great spot and we’re in a tough spot, but we’ve showed that we can play right with them. 

“We know what’s at stake, but you can’t focus on what it means, you just have to focus on doing your job. When we’ve done that this year, we’ve won a lot of games, and now we just have to find a way to get it done.”

Saturday’s radio broadcast coverage will be on WGR Sports Radio 550 and on WGWE 105.9 in Salamanca. The pregame show will begin at 8:30 p.m.

Television coverage will be available on MSG+, NESN Plus, Altitude, CSN Bay Area, CSN Chicago 2 and Root Sports Pittsburgh. The game will stream live on the ESPN APP IN THE U.S. and will also be on TSN GO and TSN2 in Canada. 

(716) Food and Sport will also be hosting the OFFICIAL BUFFALO BANDITS CHAMPION’S CUP WATCH PARTY. The party will feature many of the game day elements that have made First Niagara Center one of the NLL’s most exciting arenas. Rax will be on hand along with members of the Bandettes to cheer along the team on (716)’s 38-foot video screen. 

Faceoff is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET at SaskTel Centre. 

Although the Bandits didn’t come away with a victory in Game 1, the club wasn’t disappointed with their performance in the 11-9 loss. Immediately after the game and during the week leading up to Game 2, the team has maintained a positive attitude. 

“We lost and while we definitely would like to do some things better, it’s not as if we played terribly,” Kilgour said.

“We’re still upbeat and we know in the back of our minds that we can win in their building. All of our goals are still alive and well, and now we have to go out and try and accomplish them.”

In order to accomplish those goals, Buffalo will need to start and finish the game better than it did in Game 1. After seeing their league-leading offense explode for 20 goals in Game 2 of the East Division Finals against the New England Black Wolves, the Bandits were held scoreless in the first quarter against Saskatchewan and managed only a single goal in the final quarter. 

That will need to change in Game 2. 

“They had the first run and the last run, and that usually will be enough to win you a game,” Kilgour said. “At the same time, we know we can put together runs against them. We just have to regroup and make sure we get the last run this Saturday.” 

Offensively, the Bandits will need support for their leading scorer. While Dhane Smith continued his incredible season with a six-point night (3+3) in Game 1, Buffalo’s secondary scoring struggled to produce against the Rush’s stingy defensive unit. 

Although Saskatchewan’s league-leading defense surely played a role in slowing down the Bandits’ supporting cast, Buffalo did generate plenty of shots and chances in the Game 1 defeat. If they are to improve in Game 2, the Bandits will simply need to return to form in converting those opportunities. 

“They’re the top defensive team in the league and they have a way of forcing top offensive guys into having off nights,” Kilgour said. “Top to bottom they have a really strong group of defenders. However, and not to take anything away from their defense, we had some looks that we usually would bury. We have to figure out a way to bury them in Game 2.”

On the defensive end, Buffalo will need another strong performance from veteran goaltender Anthony Cosmo. On a night that was long in the making for the 16-year veteran, Cosmo was at his best in Game 1 as he finished the night with 40 saves on 51 shots.  

“Coz was huge for us,” Kilgour said. “In the beginning, our offense was struggling to get going and our defense was allowing some good looks, but Coz was just stopping shot after shot. It could’ve been a lot worse than 2-0 after the first quarter. He’s been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, and he certainly made the most of it in Game 1.”

All things considered, the Bandits aren’t making any drastic alterations to their game plan heading into Saturday’s do-or-die matchup. After a year that saw them set a franchise single-season record in wins (13), win the East Division, and enter the playoffs as the NLL’s top overall seed, the Bandits will merely look to fine-tune their play. 

“Nothing will really change for us,” Kilgour said. “We won’t have some big new game plan, but we just want to execute our game plan a little bit better. We have to play as hard as we can with discipline, and if we do that we’ll be happy to let the chips fall where they may.”

Buffalo will hope that they can replicate the performance they put forth the last time they traveled to Saskatoon to take on the Rush at the SaskTel Centre. 

Back on Feb. 26, a Mitch Jones overtime goal saw the Bandits beat the defending champions 19-18 on the road in a game that was just as tightly contested as Game 1 of this series. 

That win certainly doesn’t inhibit the Bandits’ confidence that they can go on the road to obtain a vital victory. 

“It was a long time ago and both teams have changed and improved, but it’s a small thing in the back of our minds,” Kilgour said. “We know we can stick with them and play with them. It’s an up and down game, we know we have to tighten up a few screws and find a way to go on that last run.

“We’re not worried, but we’re anxious to try and get this done on Saturday and bring this series back to Buffalo.”

By Zac Hirschbeck for Bandits.com. Photo by Josh Schaefer.

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