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Expect a More Defensive Minded Game 2 of the East Conference Finals

It’s the NLL postseason version of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

Game 1 of the East Conference Finals was a lacrosse heavyweight classic with the high-scoring Buffalo Bandits trading punches with and eventually outlasting the usually defensively solid Toronto Rock 18-17 in front of 10,258 Banditland fans at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

The Rock offence scored enough goals to win, well above their regular-season average of 11.50 per game. It’s on the back-end where Toronto is looking to tighten up, after giving up almost double their regular-season average of 9.22 goals-against per game.

“Game 1 we tried to do too much,” says Rock defender Mitch de Snoo. “We missed our individual matchups and we tried to help in situations where maybe we didn’t need to, and that opened up opportunities for them. What we really struggled with was stopping their runs at key moments in the game. We need to win loose-ball battles and value the ball to prevent them having the chance to score in quick succession.”

Game 2 of the best-of-three series goes Saturday night at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, ON (7pm ET on TSN 4 & 5/ESPN+).

“This week we are focusing on simplifying our game and trusting ourselves and our teammates to get back to the style of defence that was successful for us this earlier this year,” says de Snoo, one of the NLL’s top defencemen during the regular season with 39 forced turnovers (second-best in the league) and 185 loose balls (fifth-best).

De Snoo and the rest of Toronto’s defensive corps, which includes veterans Brad Kri and Latrell Harris, are keen to get back to playing solid D and putting a stop to the Bandits’ dynamic offensive duo of Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne.

Byrne was the first star in Game 1, notching 11 points on four goals and seven assists, while Smith was the second star with 10 points on three goals and seven assists.

“Credit to them, they played well and they hit every shot they had,” says de Snoo, who played with Buffalo for five seasons from 2016-20 and has NLL Finals experience from 2019. “We weren’t at our best individually or as a group, and that opened up many opportunities for them.

“We know everyone on our back-end is going to be matched up with them at some point, and we trust everyone to do their job in the one-on-one matchup, and we will have a five-man unit around them to support and contain.”

The Toronto D can also draw on experience from the 2021-22 regular season to boost themselves before Game 2.

After losing to the Bandits on January 8, the Rock rebounded to win the next two games against Buffalo on February 12 and most recently on April 30. De Snoo and his defensive mates held the potent Bandits O to 10 and seven goals respectively in those games.

The Toronto D also limited Smith and Byrne in those regular-season wins: On February 12 holding Smith to five points and Byrne to two, and on April 30 Smith to zero and Byrne to three.

In the February 12 win at FirstOntario Center, the Rock’s de Snoo was the game’s first star with a goal and an assist, 14 loose balls, three forced turnovers, two blocked shots and four penalty minutes.

For Buffalo, Saturday’s Game 2 is an opportunity to sweep away Toronto in two straight games.

“We as a group are only focused on us,” says the Bandits’ Byrne, who was also the first star on January 8 against the Rock with four goals and four assists. “Playing the right way, moving the ball with purpose and attacking the net as a group.”

The laser-focus is there for Buffalo to move on to the NLL Finals and avenge their championship loss to Calgary in 2019, the last time the NLL Cup was awarded.

“We approach every game with the same mentality and that’s playing five minutes at a time,” Byrne says. “Focusing on the little battles, winning ground balls, high-energy coming on and off the floor, and working hard for each other.”