It might be the biggest regular-season game for the Buffalo Bandits since ... well, forever.
The last game of the 2013 campaign means everything for the Bandits, as they play the Rochester Knighthawks in the First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., CBSSN, Radio 930 AM). If the Bandits win, they will qualify for the playoffs and could even host a postseason game. If they lose, they would become the only team in the National Lacrosse League to miss the playoffs.
“You win, you’re in,” Buffalo forward Shawn Williams said. “Wherever you end up, no one really cares. It’s pretty much like a championship game.”
The Bandits’ playoff hopes have only come down to the final game of the season twice before. In 1998, Buffalo defeated Syracuse to grab a postseason berth. In 2002, its playoff hopes died with a loss to the New York Saints.
A Bandits’ win would mean they would face Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. The location of that game would be determined by the Wings’ game in Washington on Saturday. A Philadelphia loss would put the playoff opener in Buffalo.
Extra drama for this game comes with the fact that the Knighthawks are almost in the same boat in terms of the postseason. If Rochester doesn’t win tonight’s game, it would have to rely on Colorado losing to Minnesota in order to reach the postseason.
“It’s one of those games as a lacrosse player that you always want to be a big part of,” Knighthawks forward Mike Accursi said. “It’s all on the line ... Those are the games that are exciting to play.”
What’s more, the reward for a playoff spot could be huge. Every team in the nine-team league could have between seven and 10 wins during the 16-game season after tonight, so clearly any team could get hot and win three postseason games and a championship.
The Knighthawks were the poster boys for parity last season. They finished 7-9 and went on to take the NLL title.
“This league, week in and week out, has shown that [parity],” Rochester coach Mike Hasen said. “Not many teams have gone on long runs. They’ve been up and down. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. ... If the other team is at their best, they’ll beat you.”
The subplots to the game are also interesting, and the first one centers on the identity of the Bandits’ goaltender tonight. Anthony Cosmo suffered a concussion two weeks ago in Minnesota and could not have played against Washington. Kurtis Wagar, who had not started a game all season, played the entire game and earned the win.
“The way Wagar played, we’ve got a decision to make,” Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said about tonight’s game. “We haven’t gotten word on whether Cosmo is fully cleared yet. We’ll have to wait until he’s cleared to decide.”
Otherwise, the lineup for the Bandits ought to be close to the one that ended a six-game losing streak last week. Steve Priolo’s status is in question, as he is appealing a one-game suspension from the league. Priolo’s hearing is slated for sometime today. His loss would hurt Buffalo’s defense.
Buffalo’s offense was led by old and new faces last week. Mark Steenhuis, who has been used in a transition role for the past few seasons, moved up front two weeks ago. He had two goals and five assists last week against the Stealth in what Kilgour called Steenhuis’ best game in a couple of years. Rookies Kevin Brownell (five points, Jordan Critch (four points) and Dhane Smith (three points) made major contributions.
Also hanging over the game are the possible side-effects of a loss on the Bandits’ franchise. There’s the annual question about the status of John Tavares, who is 44 and finishing his 21st season.
Tavares has told Peterborough of the Ontario summer league that he plans to return to play for them, health permitting. He hasn’t announced his plans for 2014 in Buffalo, so there is at least a possibility that this could be his last game as a Bandit.
A loss also could lead to changes in the Buffalo organization on and off the field. New general manager Steve Dietrich made several rebuilding moves leading into the 2013 season, and the team’s six-game losing streak down the stretch certainly must have caused some tension throughout the franchise. Missing the playoffs would not go over well with the team’s executives.
There’s one last factor to add to the mix. Buffalo and Rochester have one of the most intense rivalries in the league, and they’ve already played each other three times this season. Since their last meeting, the teams completed two trades in March that sent Scott Self and Jimmy Purves from Rochester to Buffalo - who no doubt would like to help eliminate their old team in First Niagara Center.
Put it all together, and Kilgour doesn’t think he’ll have to use any motivational speeches tonight.
“We expect that they’ll give everything there is to give,” he said. “All the motivation is there. ... The only way to erase the memory of the losing streak is to make the playoffs and then make a little run.”
Williams added, “There’s never been an easier game to get up for. It’s going to be a fun night.”