Following the brutal Eastern Division Finals slugfest that saw the Buffalo Bandits emerging victorious over the New England Black Wolves with two consecutive victories, the team will face their greatest challenge when they host the defending NLL Champion Saskatchewan Rush at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at the First Niagara Center for Game 1 of the Champion’s Cup Finals.
Bandits’ defensive coach Rich Kilgour addressed the media earlier this week about his desire to face Saskatchewan in the finals and he said that, “They’re a really good team and we have a really good team. It’s a great matchup, but we are preaching the same idea that we have all season long: just go out and do your job. We are a team. All we care about is putting the Buffalo Bandits’ name on the Champion’s Cup trophy, and that’s the attitude that we’re bringing into the finals.”
The Rush and Bandits faced off with each other only once during the regular season. In their February 26 showdown on the road at the Sasktel Centre, the Bandits were then in the throes of a two game losing streak while the Rush were coming off of a hard fought victory against the Rochester Knighthawks the week before.
With the Bandits desperately holding on to a three goal 18-15 lead over the defending NLL Champions with 3:29 left in the game, the Rush offense were able to keep their composure and turn up the heat on the opposing defense to tie the game at 18-18 with three straight goals of their own (two coming in the final 30 seconds) and send it into overtime. In the extra session, Bandits defenseman Andrew Watt placed a jarring hit on Rush forward Mark Matthews which helped defenseman Matthew Bennett pick up the loose ball and feed a bullet of a pass to forward Mitch Jones who picked up the game winning goal for the Bandits.
With the Bandits having the highest scoring offense during the regular season with 251 goals, they may have to be able to score another 19 to put away the Rush in the opening game.
“We were able to hang 19 on them in the regular season and we should have confidence going in against their defense,” Kilgour said. “We have so much depth on the offensive end and our transition game really hurt them when we played them before. We know we can turn that red light on a lot and it’ll be a great battle.”
While the Bandits’ offensive unit has been racking up accolades for their prowess during the regular season, The Rush’s defense as well have been receiving accolades for their defensive work during the regular season by being recognized as the stingiest defense in the league.
The Rush’s defense is led by former Bandit Chris Corbeil, Kyle Rubisch and Ryan Dilks. The Rush led the NLL in goals allowed with 190 and contains the league’s best goaltender in Bold who has been an absolute beast between the pipes.
Goaltender Aaron Bold led the league this year in goals against with 10.30 over 18 games and eighth in the league in save percentage with .761 with a winning record of 12-5. During the playoffs Bold has been averaging a 9.50 goals against average and a .796 save percentage.
On the other side of the ball, the Bandits’ tough and at times brutal defense will definitely make sure that every trip to the front of the net for the Rush will hopefully make them think twice about crashing the net against starting goaltender Anthony Cosmo.
Being 6-foot-5 and 230 lbs, Rush forward Mark Matthews’s towering presence will pose the biggest threat to the Bandits’ defense.
Matthews led the Rush in scoring during the regular season with 109 points (40 G, 69 A, ranked sixth in the league) and is leading the team in scoring once again during the playoffs with 12 points (4 G, 8 A).
“Matthews will get a lot of attention, but at the same time we can’t overlook anybody else,” Kilgour said. “They have a ton of capable scorers, and if we pay attention too much to Matthews, there are a lot of other guys that can hurt us. They were champions last year for a reason.”
Leading the offensive charge for the Bandits on Saturday will be Ryan Benesch with 16 points (6 G, 10 A), Dhane Smith with 15 points (8 G, 7 A), Alexander-Kedoh Hill with 11 points (8 G, 3 A), Chad Culp with eight points (4 G, 4 A) and Mark Steenhuis with seven points (4 G, 3 A).
Leading the offensive charge for the Rush on Saturday will be Mark Matthews with 12 points (4 G, 8 A), Robert Church with nine points (4 G, 5 A), Ben McIntosh with seven points (6 G, 1 A), Zack Greer with seven points (4 G, 3 A) and Chris Corbeil with five points (2 G, 3 A).