It’s a big beast of a weekend in the NLL East with the conference’s top four teams battling each other for playoff position and showcasing the league’s best goal-scorers, transition players, defenders and goalies.
“When everything’s said and done, we will find out who is at the top of the East after this weekend,” says defenseman Steve Priolo, captain of the Buffalo Bandits, the NLL’s top team at 10-1.
The Eastern action kickstarts this afternoon at 1 p.m. (all times ET) with the current #1 East seed Bandits facing off against the #2 Halifax Thunderbirds (8-3) at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, and continues later at 5pm with the #3 Toronto Rock (8-4; -1.5; O/U 21.5) taking on the #4 Georgia Swarm (7-6) in the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN2 at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton.
The Bandits and Thunderbirds then travel tomorrow to Scotiabank Centre in Halifax to play the back end of their home-and-home series on Sunday at 4 p.m. (all games ESPN+/TSN.ca).
“It will be a playoff-type atmosphere in both arenas,” says forward Cody Jamieson, captain of the 8-3 Thunderbirds. “We’re treating every game like a playoff game now.”
Buffalo has the league’s best offense, scoring 13.36 goals per game, is a perfect undefeated 6-0 at home this season and is riding a four-game win streak overall. But the Bandits are coming off a bye last weekend.
“This weekend it’s very important to get off to a good start on Saturday,” says Priolo, who has 11 points in nine games to go along with 67 loose balls and 15 forced turnovers. “A bye weekend is sometimes a double-edged sword with players getting some much-needed rest and recovery. At the same time, not playing a game together for 13 or 14 days may interrupt flow.”
“Every game is so important in the NLL, it’s part of what makes our season so exciting, so there’s no resting players for back-to-back games. I feel our team is in this sort of ‘Goldilocks’ zone of experience and physical fitness. We are young and fit, along with being experienced enough to know what it takes to recover and play the next day.”
Halifax, on the other hand, is coming off two back-to-back one-goal losses to Albany and Georgia during Week 15 and only has the league’s ninth-best offence (out of 14 teams), producing just 11.00 goals per game.
“I think last week was definitely a struggle for our offense,” says Jamieson, the 2014 NLL MVP who has 10 goals and 36 points in nine games this season. “We couldn’t find the groove. There were quite a few quarters where we went without scoring goals. We didn’t help out our defense or goalie. Moving forward, it doesn’t get any easier.”
Saturday will be the first time the Bandits and Thunderbirds have played each other this season. Both teams have dominant defenses, Buffalo second-best in the league giving up just 9.27 goals per game and Halifax third at 9.55, and opposing goaltenders Matt Vinc (.821 save percentage, second-best in the NLL) and Warren Hill (.804, fourth) are among the league’s best between the pipes.
Hill and the Thunderbirds defense, led by Tyson Bell, Graeme Hossack, the NLL’s oldest player Scott Campbell, 40, and rookie Ryan Terefenko, will have to try to stop or at least slow down the dangerous Bandits offense, headlined by 2016 league MVP Dhane Smith, who’s currently tied for tops in the NLL with 82 points and has a league-leading 57 assists, and includes five other forwards with 15 or more goals like Connor Fields, Josh Byrne, Chris Cloutier, Chase Fraser and rookie Tehoka Nanticoke.
“All our focus is on Saturday, one-hundred percent. Sunday’s irrelevant,” Jamieson says. “We’ve just got to play the way that we know we can. We’re a team that battles, works hard, picks up loose balls.”
Buffalo is 8-0 when scoring first, Halifax 5-0.
“It starts with the opening faceoff,” says Jamieson. “We’ve got the best guy [Jake Withers, 70.5 faceoff percentage and 133 loose balls] to start us off and it goes from there. Our D and goalie are our backbone. We have total faith in them, watching them go up against the best O in league.”
About the struggling Thunderbirds O, Jamieson says: “We’ve got to find a way. We’re striving to get better week in week out, every week. It’s offense by committee. At the end of day, we get paid to go out there and score goals. That’s what we’ve got to do.” The offense will look a little different this week after the Thunderbirds surprisingly released left-handed forward, Kyle Jackson earlier in the week.
The Rock (8-4) and Swarm (7-6), meanwhile, are also facing each other for the first time this season and in a strange twist will see each other again next weekend on April 1 at Gas South Arena.
“We’ve had this before with Albany,” Georgia captain Jordan MacIntosh says about previous back-to-back challenges. “Both teams [Albany and Toronto] are right next to us in standings. They’re big weekends for us. It’s a one-game-at-a-time concept, but it’s easy to get distracted by what’s going on across the conference.”
The Swarm are riding a three-game win streak while the Rock have won two in a row, three straight at home and six of their past seven, which included handing Buffalo its lone loss of the season, but are coming off a bye last weekend.
Both Georgia (third in the NLL this season with 11.92 goals per game) and Toronto (fifth at 11.50) have some offensive pop. The Swarm are led by 2017 league MVP Lyle Thompson (NLL-leading 39 goals, fourth overall in scoring with 80 points in 13 games) and 2020 MVP Shayne Jackson (30 goals in 12 games) while the Rock counter with Tom Schreiber (third in the league with 32 goals, in only 10 games).
“Toronto is really good,” says MacIntosh, a two-time NLL Transition Player of the Year in 2013 and 2014. “They’re on a hot streak. Offensively it all starts with Schreiber and figuring out ways to limit his chances and opportunities.”
Georgia will try to get the edge on Toronto by flexing its transition game, with three of the league’s top players in Brendan Bomberry (20 goals, 44 points in 13 games), MacIntosh (39 points, 90 loose balls) and Bryan Cole (23 points in 12 games).
“It’s something [Swarm owner] John [Arlotta] has always looked for: a multifaceted player who can do more than other players,” MacIntosh says. “Bryan [Cole] and myself play in a little bit of a hybrid role, out the front door [or] out the back door. It allows us to cut down other teams’ transition and creates more opportunities for us. It’s an element of our game plan that’s different than other teams in the league.”
The Rock will counter with the reigning two-time NLL Transition Player of the Year, Challen Rogers (30 points and 56 loose balls) and a stingy defense that includes Mitch de Snoo (26 forced turnovers, 125 loose balls), Brad Kri (29 forced turnovers) and goalie Nick Rose (9.72 goals-against average, .783 save percentage).
“Rose is phenomenal on outside shots,” says MacIntosh. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get inside on him.”
For Toronto, Rose says the team has been preparing by watching a lot of game film on Georgia.
“Obviously their top guys [Thompson and Jackson] present a very tough challenge to any defense,” says the veteran Rose, who has played for the Rock since 2012. “We have to have our best effort as a unit on Saturday and understand that we have to have constant pressure, physicality and make it tough on those guys every shift.
“Georgia has always been a team we have struggled with in the past. We know [they] will give us everything we can handle. We have to be at our best. This is a crucial time in our season.
“Every Eastern matchup has been an absolute battle this season,” Rose says. “We know we are in for a dogfight on Saturday. With a win we can set ourselves up to contend for the East title, but we are very much focused on playing our best game as a team [against the Swarm] and hopefully that translates to a winning effort.”
Ah yes, the East title and all that goes with it. Georgia, Buffalo and Halifax all might have something to say about that.
“I think we’re starting to put all three phases together; O, D and in goal,” says MacIntosh, who was with the Swarm when they won the NLL championship in 2017. “We had games earlier in the year where we’re playing seven to nine rookies [in the lineup] each week. The last three weeks we figured it out. The team is coming together and growing up fast. I think that’s one reason why we’ve been able to bring so many rookies along; a lot of guys have been there before.”
The Bandits still have bitter memories of the last league final from 2019, which they lost to Calgary.
“The 2019 season looms over me because we came so close, and then the next two seasons were essentially cancelled, while we still had mostly the same team intact,” says Buffalo’s Priolo. “With expansion, young guys getting older and retirements, you never know how long you can be in the position we are in. Every game is important.”
But perhaps the three-time NLL champion Jamieson knows best the significance of this big weekend in the East.
“Obviously one of our goals is to host a playoff game,” says the Thunderbirds’ Jamieson, who won three straight titles with the original Rochester franchise between 2012-14 and lost in the 2018 championship series to Saskatchewan. “Our home arena is an advantage for us. We enjoy playing there; we enjoy Halifax a lot. We’d like to treat our fans to a home playoff game.
“This weekend goes a long way. Guys will come prepared, we’ll gear up and get ready for playoffs.”