PREVIEW: Buffalo Bandits vs Toronto Rock… again

All season, it has been abundantly clear that the Buffalo Bandits and the Toronto Rock are in a class of their own atop the East Conference in the NLL. It isn’t much of a surprise that these two heavyweights meet again in this year’s conference finals. If you remember, Buffalo swept Toronto last year in the best-of-three series to punch their ticket to the NLL Finals. Let’s dig deeper into how Buffalo can repeat last year’s performance and how Toronto can turn the tables and reach the promised land.

HAMILTON, ON – FEBRUARY 12: NLL regular season game action between the Buffalo Bandits and the Toronto Rock at the FirstOntario Centre on Saturday, February 12, 2022 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Christian Bender/NLL)

A huge question concerning the Bandits all season long has been their offensive production, or lack thereof. Last season, Buffalo was an offensive juggernaut. This year, they have more of an underdog mentality and have won a considerable amount of games by the skin of their teeth: six one-goal games, to be exact. Granted, injury bugs have bitten the Bandits hard, but even so, their offense has taken a step back from last year. A fully healthy Buffalo offense is where it starts. The dynamic duo of Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne combined for a whopping 225 points for the Bandits this season. To say that these two will be the backbone for Buffalo, would be an understatement. With that being said, that brings us to Buffalo’s “secondary scoring.” Guys like Ian MacKay, Kyle Buchanan and Brad McCulley will need to step up. Presumably, Toronto’s very stout defense will have their focus on Smith and Byrne, as well as the likes of Cloutier, Nanticoke and Fraser. MacKay and Buchanan showed out this year for the injury-plagued Bandits’ offense and will need to continue that if they want to make a run for that elusive fifth championship.

Next up would be the man between the pipes, Matt Vinc. The eight-time NLL Goaltender of the Year was the other backbone this season for the Bandits. It’s a great thing to have a seasoned veteran in net and even more important to have Vinc as someone who has hoisted the NLL Cup before. At 41 years young (as of June 9), Vno shows time in and time out why he has the mile long list of accolades he has, however Toronto did blow him up a few weeks ago in their 18-7 victory over Buffalo. Based on career accolades, there is no one else Buffalo would rather have in net.

Now to Buffalo’s defense. The Bandits’ defense is extremely tight knit and a group that has a lot of chemistry. Their speed, physicality and intelligence has been on display all year. With all of that said, it is a tough task to contain a very powerful Toronto offense and arguably an even more powerful Toronto transition game (We’ll dive into that in a few minutes). Buffalo’s captain Steve Priolo sets the tone on defense, along with assistant captain Nick Weiss. Those two, along with the rest, will have their hands full. Twice this season, Buffalo beat Toronto with a massive performance from their defense. Oh, and let’s not forget holding a stout San Diego Seals offense to only six goals about a month ago.

Let’s turn our attention to our friends from Hamilton. The Toronto Rock, to some, came into this year’s playoffs as the favorite despite losing out on the number one seed to Buffalo. We’ll start with their offense, as it was nothing to scoff at this season. In comparison to the Smith/Byrne combo in Buffalo, Tom Schreiber and Corey Small combined for 199 points this season. Speaking of Schreiber, let’s take a look at Captain America by himself. Schreiber was fourth in the league in points and goals and was first in shots. He also broke the Toronto single season record for points. The offense goes through Schreiber, but what happens when he’s injured? Just a casual 15-goal performance in the team’s one-and-done game against Halifax last week. Just like the Buffalo secondary scoring, Toronto’s is going to have to step up just as they did in the Halifax game. Dan Craig, Stephen Keogh and Zach Manns are more than capable of putting the team on their back if need be. A couple others by the name of Challen Rogers and Dan Dawson are pretty solid guys to have on your side as well. If there is any team that can combat the high-powered Buffalo offense, it’s the Rock.

Next up we have the goaltender for Toronto, Nick Rose. “Rosey” as the Rock faithful say, has been brilliant all year. He is second in wins and minutes played and fifth in saves. Some would say a Goalie of the Year award is imminent for Rose. His .805 save percentage was second best in the regular season and let’s not forget holding Buffalo to only seven goals just a few weeks ago.

Finally, there’s Toronto’s stout defense and lightning fast transition. With Brad Kri and Mitch de Snoo leading the charge on defense, Toronto will look to shut down that Buffalo offense. Kri was fourth in the league in caused turnovers and what do recovered turnovers lead to? Transition. Cue Latrell Harris. Harris burned Buffalo a few weeks ago with a transition goal that got the Rock on the board first, and it happened in the blink of an eye. Harris had 30 points in the regular season and 108 loose balls. Here’s another tidbit, Harris had 10 goals on 26 shots attempted. What that tells us, is that when the man shoots, he generally doesn’t miss. Moral of the story is, Toronto has the power to hang with Buffalo as far as offense is concerned, and they can score in the blink of an eye.

This series between the Bandits and the Rock is going to be an instant classic. For lacrosse lovers across the world, we all hope it goes three games. Buffalo needs to put a full 60 minutes together. Their nail biting victories in the regular season were, presumably, a little too close for comfort. However, wins are wins. Vinc needs to be world-class to contain the Toronto offense, and the Buffalo back-end needs to limit Toronto’s transition. The Rock need to hang with Buffalo offensively, which they’ve proven they are able to. A healthy Schreiber makes a world of difference and Rose needs to continue his bout for Goalie of the Year, as well as that elusive first championship. One would assume that the games are going to be physical, so both sides staying out of the penalty box are a must as well.

Putting all of these facts out of the picture, we are in for a treat with this series. It’s evident that these two clubs do not like one another and they are the standard in the East Conference, maybe even league-wide. Clear your calendars, you aren’t going to want to miss this. 7:30 p.m. on TSN and TSN+ in Canada, and ESPN+ in the U.S.