The Buffalo Bandits look to reignite the thruway rivalry when they take on the visiting Rochester Knighthawks tonight. The Bandits narrowly escaped with a win in their game last week against Calgary, winning it 15-14 in overtime. The Knighthawks weren’t as lucky last week; they too played into overtime, but thanks to heroics from the Swarm’s Callum Crawford, the Swarm pulled away with the W over the Hawks 7-6, dropping the Hawks to last place in the East Division.
Now this is the second of three meetings these two foes will have in the regular season. In the first game on January 21, the Hawks slaughtered the Bandits 17-11, despite the Bandits strong play later in the third. However that was when the Hawks were in their friendly confines of the Blue Cross Arena, and when a visiting team steps into the First Niagara Center, it can be a totally different ball game.
The Bandits have been missing captain John Tavares who will be out on the injured reserve for at least another week. Stepping into his place has been lefty forward Jerome Thompson, who has put up big numbers since. In the Swarm game, Thompson put in four goals and added one assist, proving that he can be more than just a role player. While he did seem to have a hiccup in stats in the Bandits/Hawks game two weeks ago (to be fair, a lot of Bandits did) he managed to score the game winning goal in overtime the following week against Calgary while also adding two assists. Then there’s Ryan Benesch, who will look to have another monstrous game on the score sheet. The nine-year pro already leads the league in goals with 21 (the next closest is Mark Matthews only at 17) and is tied in total points with 40. Benesch has really seemed to come into his own this season, a lot of it he attributes to his rigorous offseason and in-season training he started. It seems almost every game he and Dhane Smith are putting up hat-trick performances and leading the way for the Bandits. If the Hawks want a fighting chance, they have to shut down Benesch and Smith.
On the side of the Knighthawks, there isn’t much to say. They no doubt have the talent to beat the Bandits. They proved already once this year they could, but unfortunately that was only their second win of the season. As I said, they have the talent. Most of the members of the current squad are the same ones who have won the past three NLL Championships, guys like Cody Jamieson, Craig Point, Sid Smith, Joe Walters, etc. Speaking of Walters, he has really had a breakout year, already compiling seven goals (his career high is 15), many of those goals coming in the past two games (including a five goal performance against the Bandits). You can also never forget about Matt Vinc, who’s performance in between the pipes tonight will be the most crucial in my opinion. Vinc has struggled a lot in this early season, but has been looking better as evident by his only seven goals against he had last week, and is starting to look like the NLL Goalie of the Year that he is. If Benesch and Smith can find the sweet spots on Vinc, the Hawks may be in for a very long night, and so the Hawk defense led by Sid Smith and Paul Dawson need to step it up, and keep the Bandits to the outside, or bad side angled shots.
With all being said, I think the Bandits being at home, and playing their biggest rival will give them a lot of momentum, which I think will equate to a great performance out on the field. I think it’ll be a tight game in the first quarter, maybe only like 3-2 (either team), but then the Bandits will ignite in the second putting up big numbers making it something like 10-5, then see their usual third quarter mishaps where the Hawks will take the lead. Then in the fourth they have to find it in themselves to pull out the win. It will take a lot of hard work to overcome a deficit in the fourth, but I believe they will. Bandits win it 15-13.