The NLL’s top two goaltenders face each other in the latest instalment of the league’s longest and fiercest rivalry on Saturday night as the Buffalo Bandits visit the Toronto Rock at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton.
“Anytime you play Toronto, it is going to be a tough test and a big game,” says Bandits goalie Matt Vinc, the reigning Goaltender of the Year award winner. “We know that both teams are fighting for home-floor advantage and our team knows how important Banditland is for our success in the playoffs.”
The contest will be broadcast across North America on the NLL on ESPNU in the U.S. and as the Game of the Week on TSN in Canada (7 pm ET; ESPNU/TSN5)
“Of course the implications are massive for the standings and who will likely win our conference,” says Rock netminder Nick Rose, a finalist for GOTY last season. “As a group, however, we are only focused on playing our best lacrosse. We need to put our best effort of the season into this game and not focus on results and implications.”
Buffalo and Toronto are currently ranked first and second in the East Conference standings, just as Vinc and Rose are 1-2 in goaltending stats.
This season, Vinc is best in the league with an 11-3 record and a 10.14 goals-against average and .807 save percentage. Rose is second at 11-4, 9.12 and .799.
Last season, the Bandits and Rock finished first and second in the East standings, and Vinc and Rose had stunningly similar numbers to this year. Vinc was 14-4, 10.10 and .807 while Rose was 13-3, 9.05 and .803, and Buffalo narrowly edged Toronto in the East Conference Finals.
“I believe a goalie’s success is determined by the play of his defense,” says Vinc, a three-time NLL champion and eight-time GOTY winner. “I have been fortunate to play behind great defenses my entire career. This year is no different.
“Every game in the NLL is so different and every opponent brings a different challenge. But my approach has not changed since I was a kid. One save at a time.”
Rose, a three-time GOTY finalist, has a similar POV from the Rock crease.
“At the end of the day, most individual awards are truly a team award,” Rose says. “I am sure every goalie that has won the award would agree they wouldn’t have the success they had without their teammates.
“I wouldn’t have the success I’ve been having this season without my teammates, and at the end of the day that’s all I really care about.”
Buffalo and Toronto played earlier this season, an 11-8 Bandits win in Hamilton on Dec. 17 during Week 3, seemingly an eternity ago.
“Both of us are very different teams than we were in December,” says Rose. “That game really has no effect on how this one will play out. We hope to all be at our best individually to allow our team to succeed.”
Vinc agrees: “Our last game versus Toronto seems so long ago that it is hard to really take much away from that game. Toronto is a much different team, firing on all cylinders. Most people around the league believe they are the most complete team. Our defense will have its hands full.”
Both Rose and Vinc will for sure be familiar with the other team’s shooters.
“Personally it feels great to know the shooters and watch tape and get familiar with them,” says Rose. “I feel more comfortable in the net when I am prepared. However, this goes both ways. The shooters know me very well too, so it really comes down to the small details once the game begins.”
Again Vinc agrees: “It can be an advantage, but it can also be an advantage for the shooter to know a goalie. They have some of the best players in the league on that offense, which can pose problems for any defense and goalie.”
The similar POVs and all the agreeing are likely because of a mutual admiration and respect between the mask-wearing netminders who stare down at each other from opposite ends of the field.
“It seems if you look at the NLL this year so many goalies are having unbelievable years in net,” Buffalo’s Vinc says. “Rosie is a proven number one guy that plays big minutes and can make the big save for his team. This year is no different. It has been a privilege to battle against him year after year.”
“Have always respected Vino and his career immensely,” says Toronto’s Rose. “Obviously one of if not the best goaltenders to ever suit up in the NLL. Competing against him throughout my career has made me a better goaltender and competitor.”
The Bandits and Rock meet once more before the end of the season, in a few weeks on April 22 in Buffalo. The season series and other games down the stretch will likely go a long way in determining playoff success.
“I really think these last few games are important for us to play well and get hot at the right time,” says Vinc. “It’s how you play late in the year that defines your season and can determine if you reach your ultimate goal.”
Vinc’s three NLL championships came with the original Rochester franchise during their 2012-14 dynasty, but wants to win one with the Bandits.
“The reason I came to Buffalo was to win a championship for the team I grew up cheering for as a kid,” he says. “I want to win and be able to share that moment with my family and friends. That is the only goal our team has this year.”
Buffalo, around since 1992, has won four NLL Cups, its last coming in 2008. Toronto owns six titles, but hasn’t won since 2011. The franchises first played each other in 1998, when the Rock were in their first season as the Hamilton-based Ontario Raiders. Now both teams are as hungry and thirsty as can be.
“I’ve come into every season with the mindset that this is the year,” says Rose, who led the Rock to the NLL Finals in 2015. “We have done a lot of good things as a group this season, but we need to keep grinding to be able to do great things.
“Of course we all hope this is the year, but every team in the NLL is hoping the same, only focused on game by game.”