Following a hard-fought East Division Finals victory over the New England Black Wolves, the Buffalo Bandits will continue their historic season Saturday night when they take on the defending-champion Saskatchewan Rush in Game 1 of the Champion’s Cup Finals at First Niagara Center.
In Game 2 of the East Division Finals, the Bandits endured an exhausting battle that saw both teams playing with a true sense of desperation. After a slow start, Buffalo trailed after the first quarter, but the Bandits’ explosive offensive attack paved the way for the opportunity to play for what could be the organization’s fifth championship.
“It was a physical game and bodies were flying all over the place all night,” said Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour. “We knew New England would play with a sense of desperation, and we had to go above and beyond that and we did. There were a few spots where we could’ve folded, but we kept our noses to the grindstone and took care of business.”
On a night where the defense struggled at times to contain the high-scoring New England offense, Buffalo’s offense rose to the occasion to bail them out. In the win, Dhane Smith continued his spectacular year with a nine-point (4+5) night, and Ryan Benesch (3+4) and Mark Steenhuis (3+2) both chipped in outstanding performances.
In addition to Buffalo’s top-three regular season scorers, the Bandits’ secondary scoring also proved hugely influential in the victory. After a four-goal night in Game 1, Alex Kedoh Hill one-upped himself with a seven-point (3+4) night in Game 2. Chad Culp also had four points (3+1), which included a pair of vital fourth-quarter markers.
“The ‘D’ struggled a little bit, but the offense bailed us out and that’s what a good team does,” Kilgour said. “They tried to just key in on Dhane, but everybody else stepped up and that’s how you win. We are a deep team and we’re an unselfish team. No one cares about who gets the great shot, our offense is always five guys working together to get the best shot on every shift.”
Although the defense did struggle in the first half against the Black Wolves, there were positives to take away from the night. When the game was hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Bandits surrendered only two New England goals to slam the door shut on their opponents.
“Our defense was caught trying not to lose early on as opposed to playing to win,” Kilgour said. “We were sitting back instead of putting the pressure on the other team. While we struggled in the first half, we settled down and in the second half and especially in the fourth. When push came to shove, the ‘D’ did step up when we really needed it.”
This coming Saturday, the Bandits will need their entire team to step up when they take on the Rush. After matching the Bandits regular season record (13-5), the Rush defeated the Calgary Roughnecks with consecutive victories in the West Division Finals. In doing so, the Rush clinched a second-straight Champion’s Cup Finals appearance, and they will have an opportunity to repeat as league champions.
Fittingly, this year’s finals will pit the League’s two best teams against one another.
“They’re a really good team and we have a really good team,” Kilgour said. “It’s a great matchup, but we are preaching the same idea that we have all season long: just go out and do your job. We are a team. We don’t care who gets the credit. All we care about is putting the Buffalo Bandits’ name on the Champion’s Cup trophy, and that’s the attitude that we’re bringing into the finals.”
Offensively, Buffalo will face the NLL’s stingiest defense. The Rush led the NLL in goals allowed (190) during the regular season and they possess one of the League’s best goaltenders in Aaron Bold. In the two-game series with Calgary, Bold was dominant in posting a 9.50 goals-against-average and a .796 save percentage.
Despite the impressive resume of the Saskatchewan defense unit, the Bandits are confident in their offensive attack. Buffalo led the NLL with 251 goals for during the regular season. Nineteen of them came back on Feb. 28 when the Bandits went on the road to beat the Rush in overtime.
“We were able to hang 19 on them in the regular season and we should have confidence going in against their defense,” Kilgour said. “We have so much depth on the offensive end and our transition game really hurt them when we played them before. I don’t want to jinx us, but we know that we can turn that red light on a lot. It’ll be a great battle.”
On the defensive end, the Bandits will have to deal with a star forward that presents a far different challenge than the one they faced against New England. While Shawn Evans’ small stature and quickness proved difficult to deal with, the Bandits will be tested when they hope to slow down Saskatchewan’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound forward Mark Matthews.
Matthews led the Rush in regular-season scoring with 109 points (40+69) and he has paced the club with 12 points (4+6) so far in the playoffs.
Despite the attention that Matthews will draw, the Bandits can’t fall victim to devoting the entirety of their attention to the big forward.
“Matthews will get a lot of attention, but at the same time we can’t overlook everybody else,” Kilgour said. “They have a ton of capable scorers, and if we pay too much attention to Matthews, there are a lot of other guys that can hurt us. They were champions last year for a reason, and we’ll do our best to create and execute a plan that will take away their tendencies.”
In addition to their game plans at each end of the floor, Buffalo will hope to draw upon the emotion that comes with playing for the ultimate prize. For many of the Bandits’ players, including several of the team’s well-traveled veterans, playing for the Champion’s Cup trophy could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Andrew Watt has been in this league nine years and he’s played on a lot of good teams and never had the chance to play for a championship,” Kilgour said. “Chad Culp has been in this league 15 years, he’s been on some really good teams, but he hasn’t been here either. Anthony Cosmo has been a part of two championship teams in Toronto, but he never played a minute in those playoff runs.
“Every player on this team has to make the most of their opportunity, and we have a great opportunity. We’ve earned this chance and now we have to go play lacrosse and make the most of it.”
Saturday’s radio broadcast coverage will be on WGR SportsRadio 550 and on WGWE 105.9 in Salamanca. The pregame show will begin at 7 p.m.
Online and television coverage will be on the ESPN app in the U.S. and on TSN GO and TSN2 in Canada.
Faceoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the First Niagara Center.
By Zac Hirschbeck for Bandits.com. Photo by Bill Wippert.