After clinching a playoff spot last weekend, the Bandits face the next big challenge of the regular season: defeating their neighbors to the north.
The Toronto Rock (8-3) are just 1.5 games behind Buffalo’s mark of 11-3. However, with three games in hand on the Bandits, the Rock could pull ahead of Buffalo in the loss column with a win at KeyBank Center Saturday night.
This 7:30 p.m. game will be the second of three meetings for these two rivals. Toronto won the first matchup in Buffalo 17-12 on Dec. 21. The Bandits return home after winning a thrilling game last Saturday 12-11 in overtime against the Saskatchewan Rush.
Chase Fraser delivered his second overtime goal of the season to keep the Bandits in first place in the NLL with just four games remaining.
This is how the East Division looks as we enter Game 15 of 18 on the Bandits regular-season schedule (Standings are prior to Friday night’s NLL games):
1. x – Buffalo Bandits (11-3)
2. x – Georgia Swarm (10-4)
3. Toronto Rock (8-3)
4. New England Black Wolves (7-5)
5. Philadelphia Wings (2-10)
6. Rochester Knighthawks (2-10)
The Rock can clinch a postseason berth with a win at Georgia on Friday or a win at Buffalo, or losses by both Philadelphia and Rochester. The Black Wolves can clinch a postseason berth with a win at Philadelphia on Saturday and a loss by Rochester.
Philadelphia would be eliminated from playoff consideration with a loss against New England and Rochester would be eliminated with a loss against Calgary on Saturday and a win by New England.
Buffalo, Georgia, Toronto and New England, meanwhile, will be jockeying for the four playoff spots over these last several weeks of the regular season.
Needless to say, every game for the Bandits is extremely important down the stretch as they look to lock up first place and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. For Toronto, it will be the second game of a back-to-back. They play in Georgia on Friday night.
Dhane Smith leads the Bandits in scoring with 81 points (22+59), while Shawn Evans has 79 points (26+53) and Corey Small has 60 (29+31). Thomas Hoggarth continues to thrive in his breakout season with 53 points (27+26) and Jordan Durston is next in scoring with 40 (11+29).
Tom Schreiber is Toronto’s leading scorer with 63 points (20+43). Rob Hellyer has 55 points (22+33) and Adam Jones has 41 points (20+21).
In the first matchup between Toronto and Buffalo, the Bandits got off to the hot start. They took a 5-2 lead after the first quarter, but it was the second quarter that ended up being the difference in the game. The Rock outscored Buffalo 7-2 to take the lead going into halftime. After that, the Bandits weren’t able to recover and were outscored 8-5 in the second half, ultimately losing by five goals.
Matt Vinc is certainly someone to watch in this game on Saturday. He has had a very strong season in net for Buffalo, but he was pulled in the second half of the first game against Toronto.
Another key factor in this game is the depth scoring for Buffalo. With Josh Byrne returning from injury, the Bandits have a number of players who can consistently put the ball in the net. The top names that come to mind are Smith, Evans, Small, and Hoggarth, but players like Byrne, Fraser, Chris Cloutier and Ian MacKay have shown the ability to step in and contribute offensively when called upon.
Team captain and top defenseman Steve Priolo has shown great production on offense for Buffalo as well this season. He has 22 points thus far (10+12) and if he gets five points over the last four games, it will be the highest point total of his 10-year career.
You can watch a live stream with a subscription to B/R LIVE. The game will air on the radio on ESPN 1520 AM and WGWE 105.9 FM as well.
Saturday’s game is also ’90s night at KeyBank Center.