TORONTO - Billy Dee Smith spent last Saturday night feeling absolutely helpless. His Buffalo Bandits team was having a nightmare of an indoor lacrosse game against the Edmonton Rush, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
Smith didn’t play because he was serving a one-game suspension for his part in a line brawl two weeks before against Colorado. Forcing him to watch one of the worst Bandits’ losses in recent history was a brutal punishment.
“It’s funny. Sitting in the press box, you can see everything,” he said. “You can foreshadow plays breaking down, and you can see the ball ending up in the back of your net. It’s a pretty anxious feeling.”
Smith at least will have the chance to have an impact on the field once again when the Bandits return to action tonight. They will play the Rock (7 p.m., espn3.com, Radio 1520 AM).
Smith wasn’t part of the team’s fourth straight loss, but he did join a players-only meeting staged after Saturday’s game. Smith says the themes of the session are easy to guess.
“We have to be more accountable to one another,” he said. “We’re on a bit of a downward slide now, but earlier in the season we played the type of lacrosse we know we can play. We can’t panic. We have to regroup and turn things around so we’re playing at our best again.”
While it’s easy to rationalize a loss caused by penalties that lead to a string of power-play goals by the opposition, the Edmonton game may prove to be much more difficult to write off. The Rush took control more or less from the opening faceoff, and did whatever they wanted. Out of Edmonton’s 14 goals, 12 came in five-on-five situations. The Rush had a power-play goal and a short-handed goal.
“It seemed like everything went right for them,” Smith said. “They definitely had a good weekend, because they handled Toronto the same way the next day. We couldn’t even hang on to the ball. There were bad bounces, and we couldn’t even pick up a loose ball. It would go into a stick, something would knock it out, and they’d pick it up.”
The collection of loose balls has become an issue with the Bandits this season. Edmonton had a 96-76 edge in them in its victory. It marked the fifth time this season that the Bandits have lost the loose-ball battle in a game by at least 18. That’s not necessarily fatal, but it sure doesn’t help.
“It’s a ton of possessions,” Smith said. “That’s one of the things in which we have to battle harder. It’s not X’s and O’s. It’s competing harder. When a defense picks up more loose balls, they can create havoc. We’ve been letting teams dictate the play too much.”
“When you lose the loose-ball stat by 20, most of the time you’re going to lose the game,” assistant coach Rich Kilgour added. “We have to dig in and win those hustle stats.”
And speaking of issues, the Bandits have lost five games in a row at home. That ties a team record, set over the course of the 1999 and 2000 seasons. This will be the first time since 1999 that Buffalo will finish with a losing record at home, since it is 2-5 with one home game left.
“It is stunning,” Smith said. “Our crowd is amazing. We have to give them more to cheer for. On Saturday we gave them 20 minutes of play without anything to cheer for. In the 11 years that I’ve been here, home games are when we play our best lacrosse. Who knows what’s wrong there, really?”
Add it all up, and the Bandits find themselves in the midst of a fight for a playoff spot. Buffalo (5-7) is in a virtual tie with Rochester (4-6), a half-game ahead of Minnesota (4-7), and a full game ahead of Colorado (4-8). Only one team in the nine-team National Lacrosse League misses the playoffs, and Smith think the Bandits should use that as motivation.
“It better be, to say the least. It had better drive us,” he said.
The Bandits could take a step toward the playoffs tonight, but it won’t be easy. Toronto (8-4) has clinched a playoff spot and could wrap up the East Division title this weekend.
“It’s weird – the last time we played, first place was on the line,” Smith said. “It seems like we meet up in crucial moments. They know what we bring to the table.”
The Bandits report that Nick Cotter had an accident at home, banging his head. He has been placed on the holdout list and probably is done for the year. Carter Bender has an injured hamstring and is on injured reserve. The Bandits are waiting for a report on a shoulder injury to Chad Culp, who could need surgery. ... Anthony Cosmo is expected to start in goal tonight for Buffalo. Kurtis Wagar has come on in relief in the last three games and in six of the season’s 12 games. However, he has yet to start a game for the Bandits.