Their home arenas are separated by just under 76 miles.
Both fan bases need just an hour and fifteen minutes to travel to see their team on the road.
And now, the Buffalo Bandits (14-4) and Rochester Knighthawks (10-8) are set for a Western New York showdown on Saturday night in an NLL Quarterfinal game at KeyBank Center in Buffalo (7pm ET ESPNU/TSN+).
Banditland is going to be rocking!
“Everyone is just so fired up,” said Bandits forward Josh Byrne who had an outstanding regular season with 43 goals and 50 assists for 93 points in 15 games played.
“It’s so loud and it really fuels us to play our best. It’s a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to seeing them this weekend. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to make for a really good atmosphere so we’re looking forward to it.”
Coming into Buffalo and hearing the residents of Banditland is not generally a pleasant experience for the visiting team. But the Knighthawks are relishing the opportunity to shuffle out of Buffalo with an upset win.
“We want to take it in and enjoy it,” said Knighthawks Head Coach Mike Hasen. “All we can do is prepare and play like we have since day one and go from there. We’re hoping to make the crowd quiet. That would be really nice but we got a big road ahead of us and it’s going to be a tough job.”
That would be an understatement.
The Bandits are the number one seed in the East Conference are they’re in search of the 5th MILL/NLL championship in franchise history and first since 2008. Last season, they came up just short falling to Colorado in the NLL Finals. In the last full season played prior in 2018-19, they fell to Calgary in the same round.
So, is there a sense of unfinished business?
“Last year is done with,” said Bandits Head Coach John Tavares. “It was disappointing but this is a new season altogether. It’s time to move on.”
“No,” said Byrne. “I personally don’t feel that way. Every season is different and it’s unique and you have a different road every single year. The final goal is to win a championship so there’s just been different things that you have to learn.”
The fact that the Knighthawks are in the playoffs is a bit of a surprise to a lot of people in the lacrosse world. The original Knighthawks franchise relocated to Halifax following the 2018-19 season. The expansion Knighthawks debuted for the 2019-20 season and had a record of 2-10 in the COVID-19 shortened campaign. Last season, the Knighthawks were 4-14, last in the NLL.
And now in year three, the Knighthawks have the chance to compete for a championship.
“We’re very competitive,” said Knighthawks General Manager Dan Carey. “Losing is not okay. We’re expecting to go in and win this weekend. That’s our goal. That’s our expectation. We have a great team. At this point, we believe we can win a championship.”
The Bandits and Knighthawks met twice during the regular season with each team winning at home. On January 20th in Rochester, the Knighthawks prevailed 15-12 and the Bandits evened the season series winning 13-10 in Buffalo on February 4th.
On Saturday, it’s the rubber game with the winner moving on to the best-of-three Conference Finals.
“Defensively, they’re really good,” said Byrne of the Bandits I-90 rivals. “They have great goaltending. They have a dynamic offense. We just have to limit their opportunities and play our game to the best of our ability.”
Byrne, along with leading scorer Dhane Smith (36 goals and 96 assists for 132 points), anchor the Bandits offense. Kyle Buchanan and Ian MacKay are 21 and 19 goal scorers respectively and the Bandits are pretty good on the backend as well with a brick wall between the pipe with eight-time Goaltender of the Year winner, Matt Vinc (14-4 10.42 GAA).
Buffalo will certainly face a stiff challenge from a Knighthawks team that can certainly bring it defensively. They have a terrific goalie in Ryan Harley (10-7 11.62 GAA) as well as a back end led by Captain Paul Dawson.
The Knighthawks will have their hands full trying to shut down that high-octane Bandits offense.
“We’re playing a super dynamic team in Buffalo with a bunch of superstars and a lot of great players,” said Dawson. “For us to win this game, it’s going to have to be by committee. From goaltending out, we gotta be on point right from the first whistle.”
Former Bandit, Connor Fields, is Rochester’s leading scorer having turned in a terrific and career best regular season with 52 goals and 60 assists for 112 points.
The Buffalo native is ready to go up against his former team and will certainly use his past experience to help his new team advance in the playoffs.
“I feel like I really do have a good feel for the NLL playoffs,” said Fields. “It really is another season. The regular season is one thing but the playoffs are a totally different animal.”
Holden Cattoni is also a big part of the Knighthawks offensive attack with 40 goals and 44 assists for 84 points. Ryan Smith recorded a 75-point regular season and there are other names that the Bandits have to be concerned with like Curtis Knight, Thomas Hoggarth and Turner Evans.
Buffalo is well aware that they are in for a battle.
“(Rochester is) a really good team,” said Tavares. “They have a great goaltending duo and a great defense that runs in transition. They have a couple of vets back there and a lot of young guys who can run and they have a very explosive offense.”
The Bandits and Knighthawks are two of the eight teams that have qualified for the postseason with a chance to compete for the 2022-23 NLL Championship. For both teams, the ultimate goal is to win it all, but this is step one which is a big accomplishment after a grueling regular season.
“We’re delighted to be in the playoffs,” said Tavares. “It’s not an easy task just making the playoffs. Rochester is a very good team. We’re a good team. They have a lot to prove. We have a lot to prove. So, it’s going to be a pretty good battle Saturday night.”
“We’re very excited,” said Byrne. “It was a very long and up and down season where we’ve had to really grind and figure out different ways to win and it feels like we’re hitting our stride at the right time and getting a lot of guys back healthy.”
It’s win or go home.
What happened in the regular season means little at this point as the records are 0-0 going into the postseason.
“Playoffs is a new animal,” said Hasen, who helped lead the Knighthawks of old to its three-peat from 2012-2014. “It’s a new beast. I think the situation itself is enough motivation for these guys that they’re going to be ready to play this week. There is definitely no more tomorrow.”
On Saturday night, the Bandits and Knighthawks will be fighting for the right to have a tomorrow.