Niagara Gazette — The Buffalo Bandits looked to be well on their way toward a miserable start to the season — a carryover from the debacle that was last season.
They weren’t all that competitive in a season-opening loss to Philadelphia. And in their second game, against the Toronto Rock on Jan. 10 at First Niagara Center, the Bandits scored only twice in the first half and were down four goals.
Then, something changed during halftime.
“We weren’t playing very well the first half of that game against Toronto,” Buffalo forward Ryan Benesch said during a conference call this week. “We just needed to get back in the locker room and all sit down and get back to the game plan. When we stick to the game plan that our coaches lay out for us, we’re a pretty good team.”
Buffalo scored 10 second-half goals to cap off a comeback win that spurred a winning streak. The Bandits haven’t lost since the opener, and have won four straight starting with that rally against Toronto to place them atop the National Lacrosse League’s East Division.
“The first game, we came out kind of sloppy,” said Benesch, who leads the Bandits with 27 points (7+20). “We’ve been playing a lot better as of late. Our defense has really picked it up and (goaltender Anthony Cosmo) is playing unbelievable. The offense is moving the ball a lot better and we’re really starting to jell together.”
Now, Toronto comes back to First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. tonight for the second time this month in an attempt to terminate the Bandits’ roll.
To do that, the Rock must solve Cosmo. No team, Toronto included, has been able to the last four games, which has lifted Buffalo to a 4-1 mark, a half-game ahead of Rochester in the East.
Cosmo leads the NLL in saves (213) and his .801 save percentage is third among qualified goalies. During Buffalo’s streak, he has allowed just 10 goals per game. He has been the face of the Bandits’ turnaround 2014 thus far, a stark contrast from his underachieving play of last season.
“The big thing with Coz this year is his confidence,” General Manager Steve Dietrich said of the three-time All-Star. “He has his swagger back. Last year I think he was questioning everything. And this year, he’s just showing up and playing.
“The way he’s playing, it basically lends itself to the rest of the guys believing in him and it’s a total team concept,” Dietrich added.
When the teams square off tonight, it will be the Rock’s second game in as many nights. Toronto hosted Vancouver last night, though the outcome and stats were not yet available at press time.
Leading the offensive effort for Toronto is setup man Garrett Billings, who entered Friday’s contest as the team’s leading point-getter with 18 total, 16 on assists. Billings’ go-to guy is Stephan Leblanc, whose 10 goals prior to Friday led the Rock.
Also posing as a threat for Toronto is a pair of 36-year-olds that rank among the NLL’s top-five all-time scorers. Colin Doyle, the NLL’s seventh-leading scorer in 2013, can still get it done, as can Josh Sanderson, who posted 12 points through Toronto’s first three games. Both players have amassed over 1,100 points in their careers.
Toronto boasts the name recognition on its roster, though the production has lacked some through four games.
“We need a little bit more production from everybody,” Sanderson said. “It just hasn’t been good enough.”
Speaking of ageless wonders, John Tavares, 45, has 10 goals to tie him with Dhane Smith for the most on Buffalo. Tavares is coming off a four-goal outing against Rochester.
The matchup will air on ESPN3 in the U.S. and TSN2 in Canada.
Follow contributing reporter Aaron Garland on Twitter @AA_Garland.