Coming off a convincing win in the Mile High City, the Toronto Rock (9-1) head back east for a home-and-home weekend against the Buffalo Bandits (5-5), starting in Buffalo on Friday at First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. ET live on TSN1 & TSN GO (Canada) and WatchESPN (U.S.). The rematch will be played the following night north of the border at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET live on TSN GO (Canada) & NLL LIVE (U.S.).
Both the offense and defense were firing on all cylinders last week as the Rock earned a lopsided 17-9 win over the Colorado Mammoth. The win was the team’s ninth of the season, matching last year’s total eight weeks sooner. Although Toronto can take solace in what’s now an impressive six-game winning streak, Rock head coach John Lovell points to a looming weekend against Buffalo as the year’s biggest test to date.
“There are no gimmes, we played a pretty good game last weekend, but we know this is probably going to be our toughest test of the season given where we are in the season,” Lovell said. “Buffalo needs a win to get closer to us and we’re looking to get some more separation.”
The first half of the season can be said to include stellar play and a couple waves of good fortune. The Rock have posted four victories with a scoring margin of five goals or higher. The remaining five wins however has Toronto scoring just eight more goals total over their opponents. Cue the good fortune, something they had a hard time finding at times last season. The Rock fell six times in 2014 by three goals or fewer including a 15-13 home playoff loss to the Bandits.
“You’ve got to get a little lucky. We lost a lot of close games last year and this year we’re finding a way to win them,” Lovell admitted. “We’ve had great goaltending from both our goalies, our offense has been outstanding from first game on.”
“So far over ten games, just about every element has been going well for us,” Lovell added.
As the old adage goes, you’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good. It’s a simple truth that has transcended into the Rock dressing room. A faith is drawn in each other, one not to be compromised by selfish play. All six of Toronto’s active forwards have 35 or more points to their credit.
“It’s an easy group to play with. All the guys on the left side and all the guys on the right side, we seem to be gelling pretty well,” said Rock leading goal scorer Brett Hickey. “Everyone is putting up some points and contributing on offense. It doesn’t matter who is putting up the points, as long as we get the win, that’s been pretty much our mindset this season.”
Hickey has easily been the Rock’s biggest surprise this season as the youngster has posted a team-high 26 goals thus far. Once dubbed as just a filler ahead of the news that Colin Doyle would miss the entire 2015 season, Hickey has emerged has one of the league’s top scoring threats from the left side.
With this, Toronto goalies Brandon Miller and Nick Rose have seen over 200 minutes in goal, posting a combined 10.20 goals against average. Individually, Rose and Miller are both among the top three in goaltending statistics, a fortuitous reality attributed to teamwork and mentorship.
“It’s been great. Nick [Rose] is a good goalie in his own right and Brandon [Miller] has always been a true professional, whether he’s in the net or on the bench. One thing about our goalie situation is though they both want to be in the net, but when Nick is in there, Brandon is his biggest fan and when Brandon is in there Nick is behind him 100 percent. There’s no egos there.”
These two teams met in Week 4 and saw Toronto use a strong second half to pull away with a 13-11 victory despite trailing at halftime by a score of 7-5. Buffalo will be looking to put together two full games of tight defense and strong transition.
“Our biggest key is to stop their transition,” said Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat. “We have to be really disciplined and really smart with our shot clock situations. We need our third and fourth guys coming off as fast as our first and second guy. We’re also happy with our transition game. We really want to push the ball as much as we can.”
“We have one of the fastest transitions in the league, and we also have some big, beefy strong defenders back there that are more defense-first kinds of guys,” added Bandits transition player David Brock. “(Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley) allows us to play to our strengths.”
The Bandits are coming off of a bye week after a win over Colorado in Week 9. Buffalo realizes how big of a weekend this is and what a good team they’re up against.
“It’s a big part of our season, with them being the front runner in the whole league and running away with the East. We’ve got to really prepare ourselves for the best team in the league from goaltending out,” said Teat. “It’s going to take 60 minutes of perfect effort to beat those guys.”
This weekend marks the Bandits third back-to-back campaign of the year, but their first home-and-home with a team.
“One of the biggest factors of this weekend is that we’re an hour and a half away from each other. We don’t have to jump on a plane and fly four hours, which is good,” added Teat. “There’s no secrets here [between us and Toronto], they know what we do and we know what they do. It’s going to come down to discipline. We really want to get that first game at home.”
This weekend will showcase some of the leagues offensive giants. For Buffalo, Dhane Smith is fourth in the NLL with 57 points (22+35) while Ryan Benesch is eighth with 51 points (27+24). Toronto’s Rob Hellyer leads the league with 71 points (26+45) while Josh Sanderson (10+56) and Stephan Leblanc (23+33) are also in the top ten.
Anthony Cosmo is expected to start this weekend. He’s coming off of a tweaked knee obtained from shoveling two weeks ago. Backup goalie Davide DiRuscio shined in his first NLL start in Week 9, but everyone seems happy to have Cosmo back.
“It felt good being able to make some saves. The defense played really well for me,” said DiRuscio. “We’re all excited to get ‘Coz’ back in there.”
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) & Steve Bermel (@BanditsBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Martin Deland.