Last week the Toronto Rock (4-2) knocked off the NLL’s top team, so a matchup against the second place Buffalo Bandits (6-1) should be no sweat, right?
Not if the Bandits have anything to say about it, and they’ve already beaten their North Division rivals once this season, a 10-8 victory in Banditland on January 18. That victory, and the four-game win streak they’re currently on, has them a game ahead of the Rock in the standings.
In that game, Toronto led early until Buffalo scored five straight in the second quarter. Toronto tied things up in the fourth but that was short lived with Chris Cloutier giving the Bandits back the lead two minutes later.
This game is a Sunday afternoon matchup at Scotiabank Arena at 3 p.m., a usually rare occurrence for the Rock, but this year it’s the first of two such home games. It’s also the second of three Rock home games in 16 days.
Rob Hellyer leads the Rock with 28 points and 17 goals. The always reliable Dan Dawson is second with 23 points, and third-year player Dan Craig has 18. The Rock have been relying on their younger players in the last few games with injuries plaguing some veterans including Adam Jones and Tom Schreiber. Rookie Zach Manns has really stepped up and has been playing like he’s been in the league for years. Captain Challen Rogers has also played out the front door the past two games, scoring three goals and adding a pair of assists. The Rock also scored five transition goals last week against Halifax, making them dangerous at any position.
Dhane Smith (10G/27A), Josh Byrne (19G/12A) and Chris Cloutier (13G/11A) lead the Bandits. Byrne, in particular, has shown quite the aptitude for highlight-reel goals this season so fans – of either team – should pay close attention when he’s on the floor. Keep an eye on Corey Small, too – the lefty forward has scored two consecutive overtime winners.
Nick Rose has played every minute in goal for the Rock, achieving a 9.67 GAA and .809 SV%. He’ll be going up against Matt Vinc, which is always an exciting battle to watch. The two are capable of matching each other save-for-save and games often come down to just a goal or two. Vinc, the five-time goaltender of the year, has a save percentage of .794 with a GAA at 11.97. Buffalo’s defense will need to be really stingy against Toronto’s creative forwards and dangerous transition.
Another factor in this game will likely be special teams with the Bandits first in the league in power play converting on 57 per cent of opportunities. The Rock are dead last, scoring only five times on 20 opportunities (25 per cent). However, Toronto sits about middle of the pack in penalty killing while Buffalo is second last.
At this point, Halifax and Buffalo look like they’ll be battling it out for first place in the North Division, but don’t count out the Rock just yet. Beating the Bandits would give them a lot of confidence heading into the middle of the season.