It may not be the matchup anyone besides Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock fans wanted, but it’s the one that was most expected.
Although, if you ask the players and coaches, they’ll tell you they weren’t thinking about it all.
“We knew the East was pretty good and pretty deep, which you saw with Albany and Halifax and even some other teams coming on at end of year. We knew Toronto went on a bit of a run at the end of the year and they were playing some good lacrosse, but we were focused on ourselves,” said Bandits’ forward Kyle Buchanan.
Rock Head Coach Matt Sawyer said the same thing.
“We weren’t looking past Halifax. We had our hands full there. We just wanted to get the opportunity to play the next week, whether it was Buffalo or Albany. Throughout the season Buffalo was the team with the best record so it’s fitting that we’re playing them.”
The rivals, one and two in the NLL East standings, now go head-to-head in the Conference Finals, with the winner of the best-of-three series moving on to compete for the NLL Cup.
Game one is set for this Sunday at 6pm ET (ESPN+/Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN), with the Bandits hosting at Keybank Center. Game two switches to Toronto’s home floor, Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre, on Saturday, May 21st. If game three is necessary, it’ll be in Buffalo on Saturday, May 28th.
Keybank Center and FirstOntario Centre are separated by just 106 kilometres (that’s 65 miles for the Americans reading this) and an hour and 15 minutes (depending on border traffic), which means that the Bandits and Rock have a natural rivalry. They play each other three or four times a season and in recent years have been evenly matched on the floor. That rivalry is made all the more intense by the die-hard fans that each team boasts.
Both arenas were filled with fans in the quarterfinals – 12,535 in Buffalo and 7,241 in Hamilton – and as their teams go deeper the support will only grow. Good luck to any fans wanting to get tickets in the opponent’s arena!
HOW THEY GOT THERE
Buffalo finished first in the East Conference regular season with a 14-4 record, while Toronto was right behind them at 13-5. Each team then survived an intense one-and-done quarterfinal game in order to advance to the East Finals.
Buffalo defeated Albany in a game that was tied 2-2 at halftime. The Bandits heated up in the second half, with Dhane Smith scoring 14 seconds into the third quarter, and Matt Vinc stopping Ryan Benesch on a penalty shot in the fourth that would have swung momentum to the FireWolves. A pair of late-game empty netters allowed the Bandits’ fans to breathe a sigh of relief.
“A one-game playoff creates hesitation on teams and you saw that in a 2-2 first half,” said Bandits’ forward Kyle Buchanan. “I don’t know that you’ll see that same hesitation from our offense or their defense in [the upcoming] series.”
Toronto had a commanding 9-3 halftime lead over Halifax but allowed the Thunderbirds to tie, and then take the lead at 13-12, on four and five goal runs in the third and fourth quarters, respectively. Tom Schreiber tied the game, Nick Rose stopped at least five good Halifax chances to score in the dying minutes, and Challen Rogers scored the winner in overtime.
“That was a heck of a lacrosse game, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a lot of them in the summer and the winter. That was a top 10 lacrosse game of all time, with all the swings and the emotions,” said Rock Head Coach Matt Sawyer.
HOW THEY MATCH UP
One win separated the two teams in the standings, so despite Buffalo’s first place standing, the result of this series isn’t a foregone conclusion. Especially because Toronto took the season series two games to one. Buffalo took the first contest on January 8 at home 12-6, but Toronto took the next two, one home and one away. First was a narrow 12-10 win on February 12th, and then a come-from-behind 10-7 win on April 30th. The Rock were the only team to beat Buffalo twice this season.
Bandits’ defenseman Ian MacKay said this game will be about revenge.
“They got the best of us this year in two of the three games. Now it goes to a series. Luckily for us we only played them [two weeks] ago and it’s still fresh in our mind,” MacKay said. “We played three really good quarters and dictated the pace and they brought it to us in the fourth and we didn’t know how to react because we haven’t faced a ton of adversity. I think it was good to be able to face that against them. We have a lot of film and a lot of experience.”
Although they scored a whopping 40 more goals than Toronto in the regular season, Buffalo’s dangerous offense went quiet in their last game against the Rock. They were held to just two goals in the second half, and only seven overall. Then, against Albany, they only scored twice in the first half. That’s just one goal in four consecutive quarters. They did pick up the pace in third and Buchanan said they need to continue at that pace when the game starts.
“The one adjustment we can make is to get off to a better start; two goals in one half is not what you’ve seen from our offense, so our focus is going to be on the first quarter and those first five minutes. We’ll be swinging the ball and moving our feet and trusting each other to make the plays we know how to make,” he said.
Sawyer will remind his team that just because the Bandits have struggled recently, there’s no guarantee that will be true this weekend.
“Yes, they’ve struggled but they were also the highest scoring team, the next closest team was 40 goals behind them. They have a lot of firepower. We scored 14 against Halifax and the game before that we only had one at the half. Each week things can change so we’ll be focused on Buffalo’s offense as a whole and we fully expect them to be the top flight unit, like how they were over 18 games versus how they performed last week.”
Rock goaltender Nick Rose told Breakfast Television’s Devo Brown that the team has to be even better than they were last weekend.
“[Buffalo was] obviously the number one seed in the regular season, and they’ve had an unreal overall season. We beat them twice; just two weeks ago was a bit of a comeback on our end. We feel well prepared but we know the challenge will be difficult and we have to be at our best.”
Vinc versus Rose is one of the all-time great goaltender battles. On their own, they’re two of the best goalies in the game. Put them across the floor from each other and you’re guaranteed a good game. Watching these two match each other save for save …
Each goaltender is not only their team’s MVP, but also one of their favourite teammates. They are leaders; they’re the backbone of the team. They’re easy to rally around. Their teammates want to win for them.
“He’s been goaltender of the year so many times for a reason,” Buchanan said of Vinc. “He held Albany to five goals and allowed our offense to get settled in and make a make a little bit of a run late in the game. There’s a lot of trust back there. I think he knows that if he does his job too and the offense is having a slower night that we’ll pick it up for him on the nights that he’s off.”
Each goaltender is coming off an astounding win in the quarterfinals. Vinc made 45 saves against Albany, while Rose made 41 against Halifax.
“Emotions were real high after that one. I’m sure he was feeling good about himself; how could you not?” asked Sawyer, when talking about the Quarterfinal. “Rosey gave us an opportunity to play this weekend with some of those stops he made down the stretch. He’d be the first to say he wasn’t at his best, he couldn’t buy a stop early on in the third or fourth, but some of those plays, like the back-to-back saves on the breakaway, those weren’t just hitting him. He goes down low on Terefenko and gets up on his knees quickly to stop Armstrong. Nick made those saves instead of the ball just hitting them. The Keogh stop was unbelievable and that essentially saved our season and gave Challen the opportunity to pull it off in overtime.”
This series could be over next weekend after game two, but does anybody really want that?
“I’m sure they have hopes that it goes two and so would we, but you have two great teams that are intense rivals,” said Sawyer. “It’s going to be really good lacrosse so we’ll take it one game at a time.”
The rivalry on the floor will be matched only by the rivalry between the fans in the stands.
“I think each fanbase is really supportive of their team, so that can play a factor in the momentum of the games,” said Buchanan.
He also said that it wouldn’t surprise him if the series went the full three games.
“Both teams are really good in their buildings. We plan to focus on game one. We’re not looking too far ahead. It’s kinda cliché, but the reality is, game one is super important in this short three-game-series. You don’t even have a chance to feel each other out, you just have to get right after it. We’re focused on game one but if it goes to three we have Banditland behind us. We worked all year for that.”
Rose knows how important the fans are.
“We had some games without them in the middle of the season (due to Covid-19) so we got that perspective of how much they mean to us,” he explained. “The last little while they’ve been so loud… They’re going to keep coming out and giving us support and we appreciate it.”