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First Place in the East on the Line on ESPNU In Rubber Match Between Buffalo and Toronto

It’s big for both Bucky and Small.

First place in the NLL East, and possibly home-floor advantage throughout the looming postseason, is at stake when Kyle Buchanan and the Buffalo Bandits host Corey Small and the Toronto Rock at KeyBank Center on Saturday night in the NLL on ESPNU (8 pm ET; ESPNU/TSN+).

“This, of course, is the biggest game of the year,” says Bandits veteran forward Buchanan, third in goals (19), assists (32) and points (51) for Buffalo this season. “We understand how valuable home floor is throughout the playoffs and what energy Banditland can provide us each night. We are focused on Saturday and locking in first.”

The Bandits are 12-4 with two weeks remaining in the season, and trail the 13-4 Rock by one game in both the East Conference as well as the league’s overall standings. Either Buffalo or Toronto will clinch first in the East with a win on Saturday night.

A win would also go a long way toward home advantage throughout the playoffs. Over in the NLL West, 12-4 San Diego is also still in the mix for first overall in the NLL.

“I love playing in big games,” says Rock veteran forward Small, second in goals (38) and third in assists (39) and points (77) for Toronto this season. “For us, the goal at hand is locking up first and home-floor advantage through the playoffs.

“This being our last regular season game, we want to go into the postseason on a high note. Against Buffalo gives us a playoff-like game to end the regular season.”

The Rock and Bandits have played twice this season, splitting the games so far. Saturday is the rubber match with much on the line.

Early in the season on Dec. 17, Small had a team-high three goals and six points for Toronto in an 11-8 home loss to Buffalo. More recently, a few weeks ago on April 1, he recorded a team-high 10 points on five goals and five assists in the Rock’s 18-7 win over the visiting Bandits.

“I think it’s the intensity of the rivalry that brings the best out in me,” Small says.

Buchanan and Buffalo are looking to bounce back from that last loss to Toronto. An 11-10 overtime win against New York last weekend on Tucker Out Lymphoma night in Banditland helps. Buchanan had three goals.

“We didn’t have a good showing top to bottom last game against Toronto, so we need to be sure we are ready to play a complete game this time around,” says Buchanan, who first played in the NLL in 2013 with the Washington Stealth and has had other stops in Philadelphia, New England and San Diego before arriving in Buffalo.

“Toronto is a very athletic team that tries to make you play their game and make quick decisions that are out of character, so we need to make sure we are moving our feet early to create matchup changes and dictate what happens at that end of the floor. As for [Rock goalie Nick] Rose, he is a very solid goalie, great at playing angles, so we need to move the ball well and make sure we are hitting our shots.”

Toronto leads the league in both goals-for and goals-against, and has a plus-71 goal differential (and can set a NLL record which was set by Edmonton in 2015 at +64).

“We have the best defence and goaltender in the league,” Small says. “When they’re consistently holding teams under 10 goals, it takes this pressure off the offense. The large goal differential comes from games when defence, transition and offense are all playing at their best. When that’s the case, we are a tough team to beat. Our team heartbeat comes from our defence and transition. So it starts there.

“Offensively, lots of movement. Buffalo is a team that likes to pack it in on defense and force shots from the alley. We have to work hard to create space and get to the prime scoring area. We have to work hard to spread their defence to get the middle of the floor open. They’re a team that blocks a lot of shots defensively, so we need constant movement.”

The Bandits will try to use the hometown Banditland crowd, likely to be large and loud as they have averaged over 14k per game this season, to their advantage on Saturday in one of the NLL’s most historic and heated rivalries.

“Our crowd has been with us all year and we certainly ride their energy at key moments,” says Buchanan. “We haven’t had amazing starts as of late, so I think we need to spark them early and continue that energy throughout the night.

“This rivalry has been around a long time, and I just think the nature of our sport brings out the intensity between teams that see each other a lot in emotional games. Our venues are an hour apart from one another, and both teams have been fighting for top spots for the last few years, so that continues to intensify the rivalry each and every game.”

Both Buchanan and Small, who started in the NLL in 2010 with the Edmonton Rush and has had stints with Vancouver, Buffalo and Philadelphia, are searching for their first NLL championships. Their current teams, the Bandits and Rock, haven’t won titles since 2008 and 2011 respectively.

Buchanan has come close twice, losing with Washington in 2013 to Rochester and with Buffalo last season to Colorado.

“Of course, almost everyone’s goal as a player is to be able to lift the trophy over your head each year or at some point in your career,” Buchanan says. “I have been to the Finals twice and have not got it done. As I get a bit older and near the end of my career, it is really one of the only things that drives me. It doesn’t come very often, so you do need to take advantage of the chances you get.”

Interestingly, Small played for Buffalo in the 2019 NLL Finals when the Bandits fell to Calgary. He suited up for Philadelphia last season, losing to San Diego in the quarterfinal crossover wildcard game.

“That’s the reason I’m in Toronto. Going into free agency I wanted to play for a team with a strong chance to win,” says Small. “Championship is the ultimate goal, but right now I’m just enjoying the journey this season has been with the great teammates I have. It would be a dream come true to find the championship with this group.”

That’s the ultimate postseason destination, but first the final few steps of the grinding regular-season journey need to be taken by both the Rock and Bandits.