BY AARON GARLAND firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — The Buffalo Bandits welcome the defending champs to town at the right time.
The Rochester Knighthawks come to First Niagara Center tonight for a 7:30 p.m. faceoff to square off with a Bandits team that has won three straight since dropping their season opener. It’s also a rematch of last year’s win-or-go-home regular season finale in which the winner advanced to the playoffs and the loser took the next eight months off.
It was Rochester coming out on the right side of a 10-9 decision. The Knighthawks haven’t lost since as they went on to capture their second consecutive National Lacrosse League title in 2013. They are winners of their first three games this year, making it seven straight victories dating back to that last go-around with Buffalo.
In a matchup of perhaps the two hottest teams in the NLL, the Bandits (3-1) can gauge how much improvement they’ve really made since Rochester (3-0) kept them out of the postseason. The winner will also assume first place in the East.
“It’s a litmus test, I guess,” Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich said. “Rochester is the best in the league, back-to-back champs. This is going to let us know how far we still have to go, you could say, before we can be talked about in the same sentence as teams like that.”
Buffalo’s latest victory was a 16-9 thumping of Colorado last week. Each passing game has represented a more complete game for the Bandits, and Dietrich believes the play of the back end has been key to early success. Especially that of Anthony Cosmo, who sports an 11.50 goals against average while going 3-0.
“I think our defense and our transition game is really starting to gel,” Dietrich said. “Coz is playing like we know Coz can play. We’re hoping that our offense is eventually going to catch up to the ‘D’ and the transition and play to their capabilities.”
While Dietrich hopes for more out of the forwards moving ahead, they did come alive against Colorado after posting just 37 goals in the first three games.
Leading the team in goals (10) and points (23) is second-year transition player Dhane Smith. Newcomer Ryan Benesch has also made a difference up front, netting seven goals and registering a team-leading 14 assists.
Smith and Benesch’s point totals are tied for seventh and ninth, respectively, among all players, although each player ahead of them on the list has played at least an additional game.
Just as Cosmo has keyed a Buffalo win streak, the recipe for Rochester hasn’t changed since the last time the squads met — rely heavily on Matt Vinc.
The star goaltender is playing at as high a level as he was last season when he led the league in GAA among full-time starters. Early on, he again leads the NLL in GAA (7.67), surrendering just 23 goals on 138 shots for an otherworldly .833 save percentage. Not once in the young season has Vinc given up 10 goals in a game.
“Offensively we’re going to have to get to the middle of the floor and shoot from there to get the offense going and get cutters through,” Bandits defenseman Billy Dee Smith said. “I think the biggest thing against Rochester is to get the ball moving east and west for our offense to get some good looks on Vino.”
On the offensive end for the Knighthawks, Dan Dawson is second in the NLL in points per game, scoring nearly seven per contest. He has 19 points, with 14 coming off assists. Cody Jamieson is the team’s top goal-scorer (seven) and second-leading point-getter (16).