TORONTO – A sea of blue, white and red is expected along the QEW on Saturday night when carloads of Rock fans will make the trek down to the HSBC Arena in Buffalo to watch the biggest game of the season to date between the Rock (6-5) and Buffalo Bandits (4-3), resuming another longtime rivalry at the HSBC Arena (7:30 p.m., Fan 590 AM).
The teams have shown no love lost between them and both teams know how important it will be to play all out.
“As usual, we expect it to be tough and maybe a little bit on the chippy side, which is fine,” said Rock head coach and general manager Terry Sanderson. “We sort of enjoy playing that way.”
Every participant in Saturday’s game knows what’s at stake, with a loss potentially ending either team’s hopes to host a playoff game or possibly even make the playoffs.
No team in the five-team East Division is under .500.
“I don’t think anybody predicted things would be this tight,” said Sanderson. “I think people thought Toronto, Rochester and Buffalo would walk away with this thing. Here we are in a crap-fight like everybody else.”
“On any given night, anybody can beat anybody when you don’t have your ‘A’ game.”
Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour agrees.
“The way the league’s going right now, the winner of our division might even be 9-7,” he said. “The consistency throughout the league isn’t there right now, everybody has that night where things don’t go your way. We have to be mentally stronger.”
Kilgour knows Toronto, which has lost in the previous two meetings to Buffalo this year, will be looking for redemption.
“It’s extremely hard to beat one team three times in a year,” Kilgour said. “It’s really hard to maintain focus throughout a whole year. It’s going to be tough to beat Toronto this weekend. Sooner or later they are going beat us… if we do manage a win, I really hope we don’t seem them in the playoffs.”
“There’s extra motivation in a rivalry, and there’s varying rivalries in this league,” Kilgour said. “But when you get Buffalo and Toronto together, it’s a little special. You have two of the better teams in the league, so people say, so you want to beat the best to be the best.”
“Both teams know they’re going to have fans in the stands, so there’s extra motivation there too. And we’ve had some guys from their team come to us and vice versa, so you see some very heated, very good quality games.”
Add the factor that both teams have eliminated each other in previous years, and the rivalry just intensifies.
“These games mean something in terms of bragging rights,” Kilgour said. “There’s a lot on the line when we play.”
Rock looking for redemption
The Rock is coming off a controversial 14-12 loss to the Philadelphia Wings last Saturday, a game which ended the Rock’s six-game winning streak.
“I don’t think we lost this game as much as this game was taken away from us,” said Sanderson. “I can’t comment any further on that because I might get fined.”
The Rock had a key goal disallowed in the third quarter and were assessed four consecutive holding penalties.
Things don’t get any easier for them.
They’ll have their hands full with a potent Buffalo offence led by Mark Steenhuis and John Tavares.
Tavares became the all-time points leader in National Lacrosse League history last weekend in a disappointing loss to the Minnesota Swarm, and the morning after his wife gave birth to a son. It was quite the weekend for Tavares, but he is humble when receiving praise.
“I never thought I would (set this record), I was just happy to be playing pro lacrosse when I came into the league (in 1992),” Tavares said. “The stats, the record, it’s just a bonus. I want to keep playing as long as I can… I’m fortunate to be playing this game at the age of 37.”
Bandits coach Darris Kilgour knows Tavares is a huge piece to the puzzle if Buffalo hopes to win the Eastern Division this season. He said he is working his highly touted offence hard in practice to get them back to the top of the league.
“The offence has been stifled (in the Bandits three losses this season) and I’m not sure why,” said Kilgour. “Our offence gets really tight really quick and tries to hurry things. Hopefully, we can correct that Saturday.”
Buffalo goalie Steve Dietrich leads the league in goals-against average, 9.40, and in save percentage, .821. Despite a shaky performance, letting in some questionable outside shots in the loss last Saturday to the Swarm, Kilgour is still confident with Dietrich’s play.
“Steve hasn’t had a bad game this year,” said Kilgour.
Dietrich will need to be at the top of his game against the potent Rock offence this Saturday. He’ll have his hands full with four of the league’s top six scorers. Josh Sanderson leads the points race with 71, and Colin Doyle is next with 69. Blaine Manning and Aaron Wilson are close behind.
The four are a big factor in the success of the Rock power play, which is now at the top of the NLL.
“Our (special teams) guys woke up and realized we were in a league,” Sanderson said. “Our guys have finally woke up a bit here and realized the equality in this league, and we got a good reminder and it was probably why we were sitting at 0-4.”