Billy Dee Smith has been in plenty of happy postgame locker rooms during his 11 years as a member of the Buffalo Bandits. Last Saturday’s scene after the playoff win against Toronto was one of the most euphoric of them all.
“It was actually weird,” he said. “We’ve been in good spirits considering the eight-game losing streak. You know you’re better than that and expect more. ... We were ecstatic that we won and we played a good game. ... The guys were really happy.”
Ending the Bandits’ year with a nine-game losing streak would have made for an unimaginably long summer.
“It makes for a miserable offseason,” Smith said. “The team would have had to make some changes. But now we’re not having to think about that.”
The Bandits instead can worry about the next obstacle in their path. The Rochester Knighthawks rested last week while the Buffalo-Toronto matchup took place. Now the Knighthawks come to town tonight to start the National Lacrosse League East final (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 550 AM).
Rochester will arrive with a bit of well-deserved swagger. The Knighthawks have won the last two NLL championships, and they took the East Division this year with an impressive 14-4 record.
“Whether it’s the first round or the second round, it’s no surprise to play them,” Smith said. “You have to beat the best in the playoffs. I don’t think they’ll take us lightly.”
The teams aren’t strangers. They played four times in the regular season, with Rochester winning three, and will meet twice more (plus a possible 10-minute mini-game) in the playoffs. Long scouting reports aren’t needed here.
“Between the two teams, there are a lot of guys who are friends on and off the floor,” the veteran defender said. “Whoever sticks to the game plan better, and do what the coaches draw up, will win.”
“It’s going to be a very tough series,” Rochester coach Mike Hasen said. “We had the opportunity to watch them live last week. There aren’t too many surprises. We have to make sure our compete level is good from the get-go. We have to eliminate mistakes.”
Any discussion of the Knighthawks must start with their two biggest stars. Cody Jamieson had 10 points in the season finale against Buffalo two weeks ago to give him 108 points for the season and the league scoring title.
“I’ve played with him in the summer for the last four or five years,” Smith said about Jamieson. “He’s tricky. He’s faster than people give him credit for, and he’s as strong as an ox. He has great floor vision, and one of the best shots in the league. Even if he doesn’t make his shots, he’s happy to pass. A lot of shooters just keep shooting. He has all facets of the game.”
Then there’s goalie Matt Vinc, who was in his usual spot this season as one of the league leaders in goals-against average and wins. Vinc showed he could steal a game on April 19 in Rochester when the Bandits badly outplayed the Knighthawks but Vinc simply refused to let his team lose.
“Vino has been my goalie every summer,” Smith said. “With a guy like him, they’ll pack it in and let him see the ball.”
Both teams will have to deal with the NLL’s new playoff format for the final two rounds of the postseason. After hosting tonight’s game, Buffalo will be in Rochester next Saturday night for a full 60-minute game. If both teams have a win after that game is completed, they will play a 10-minute mini-game to determine which team will advance to the championship round.
Opinions are divided about how good an idea this is.
“Any time you’re playing often, and front and center, it’s better,” Hasen said. “It’s an opportunity to expand the playoffs. The more exposure, the better. The opportunity to play a game both home and a way will help both organizations. ... This gives you something to have in an extra pocket – if you pull a stinker, you can make up for it.”
Smith isn’t convinced.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “It should have gone to one game, and then best two-of-three in the final. If someone comes back and wins the second game, and it’s a blowout by 10-5 or something, you can still lose the third game by 1-0. It doesn’t make sense.”
No matter what the format, the Bandits should be a more confident bunch this week then they were just a week ago. Ending a long losing streak means everyone won’t be waiting for something new to go wrong in the final minutes.
“Anytime you lose that many games in a row, they try to do things a bit on their own. You want to be the guy that makes a difference,” Smith said. “I expect us to be looser.”