A little over a month ago, the Georgia Swarm were trounced 18-9 at KeyBank Center by the first-place Buffalo Bandits.
Since then, Georgia (5-7) has struggled to make meaningful gains in the East Division, having split its four games during the past month and sitting in last place in the standings. Buffalo (6-5) has slipped out of first place, dropping its last two games amidst multiple bye weeks.
Buffalo now has a staggered doubleheader weekend ahead of it. The Bandits stays home to take on the Saskatchewan Rush on Friday, March 16. It then heads south to Infinite Energy Arena for a rematch against the Swarm on Sunday, March 18. Faceoff is set for 4:05 p.m. ET. Fans can catch the game LIVE via NLLTV.com.
The Bandits can potentially reclaim first place in the East this weekend with two wins, but the nature of its doubleheader is a huge variable affecting Sunday’s game against Georgia.
“I don’t know if there are any stats kept on it, but a team that plays a second night on a back-to-back, night after night, is usually the better of the two teams, for whatever reason,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “You would think the team that was rested would be better, but having this day in between, I don’t know if it’s going to do us any good or not.”
When the two East Division rivals met last on Feb. 10, Georgia could not solve Bandits goaltender Zach Higgins. The former Swarm netminder stood on his head that night, making 54 saves on 63 SOG and finishing with an .857 SV%.
Mitch Jones and Jordan Durston led the team in points with seven each (2G, 5A), and Callum Crawford and rookie Josh Byrne followed up with six points (3G, 3A) each.
Georgia recorded a season-low in team points with only 22 (9G, 13A). Miles (1G, 3A) and Lyle Thompson (2G, 2A) led the team in points with four apiece. Goaltender Mike Poulin was chased out of the net for the first time all season, and backup Warren Hill earned the loss in his NLL debut.
“Buffalo did a great job on us last time,” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said. “Their goalie was great. We’re going to need find a way to solve their goaltending whether it’s Higgins or (Alex) Buque in net, and we have to make sure we’re shooting effectively when we get those good quality chances that we are able to generate.”
The two teams have had some roster changes since that Feb. 10 game.
Georgia added forward Jordan Hall and transition player Joel White back from the Holdout List, and transition player Chad Tutton also made his season debut, coming off of the Injured List after his season-ending lower body injury in Game 1 of the East Division Finals last season.
The defense for the Swarm has improved significantly in its past four games since the trio returned, posting a 10.5 GA/GAME compared to a 13.38 GA/GAME over the team’s first eight games.
Poulin has been strong behind the improved Swarm defense, posting a 10.27 GAA and a .800 SV% during the recent four-game span.
“Two factors that contribute to your goals against number are your penalty kill and your ability to stop things in transition,” Comeau said. “Our penalty kill has been good the last two games, and we’ve held teams to limited transition opportunities. That makes a big difference.”
Georgia’s offense has been another story, struggling to gain traction all season. After a 14.77 GF/GAME in the 2017 season, the Swarm has an 11.75 GF/GAME this season.
Assistant captain Shayne Jackson leads the Swarm in points with 57 (22G, 35A), followed closely by Lyle and his 52 (22G, 30A).
On Feb. 28, Buffalo made a blockbuster trade with the New England Black Wolves where the Bandits sent Crawford and a second-round pick in the 2019 draft to New England for former two-time MVP Shawn Evans and a fourth-round pick in the same draft.
Buffalo’s O has yet to see the benefits of Evans’ addition to the squad, but Evans had a nightmarish time just making it to the Bandits’ game against the Colorado Mammoth.
The former Black Wolves player was in Myrtle Beach, S.C. running a lacrosse clinic when the blockbuster trade went down. He made it to Denver after his original flight was cancelled, but his lacrosse gear was lost during the flight. Evans did not make it to the arena until 45 min. before faceoff, sans his lacrosse essentials.
“It was a mad scramble finding a stick for him, somebody else’s stick,” Cordingley said. “That’s just the way things go in this league sometimes … It was funny cause he was wearing shoes that were I think a size too big for him.”
With the last bye week, Evans had more time to practice with Buffalo and become more acclimated with the Bandits’ systems. With the extra practice and a game on Friday, not to mention hopefully his own gear, Evans is expected to have more of an impact come Sunday night.
The Bandits offense is fourth-best in the NLL with a 13.18 GF/GAME. The offense is led by 2016 NLL MVP Dhane Smith and his 64 points (25G, 39A) and Jones with 53 points (20G, 33A).
Between the pipes, Buffalo has been going back and forth between Higgins and Buque this season. In 204:46 min., Higgins has a 12.89 GAA and a .762 SV%. Buque has seen more time in front of the net and has a 12.95 GAA and a .765 SV% in 458:40 min.
Buque turned in an exceptional game against Colorado two weeks ago, only allowing eight GA while finishing the night with an .822 SV%.
With the staggered doubleheader, Cordingley has not committed to which goaltender will start against Georgia. The game on Friday against the Rush will certainly factor into the decision, but complicating it is Buque’s success last week against the Mammoth and Higgins success a month ago against his former team.
“We have total, 100% confidence in both Higgins and Buque,” Cordingley said. “They have both played well for us at times year and been very big in net. To be honest, it’s a one game at a time thing for us as coaches deciding on who’s playing and who’s not, because we start one goalie Friday, and he plays really well and has lots of confidence, we’re probably going to push to have him play again.”
With Buffalo seeking its first win since Feb. 10, the Bandits can get back to the top of the East with this doubleheader weekend. But Georgia stands at the end, looking to bounce back itself and hopefully find consistency in its championship defending season.