ROCHESTER — Jay Thorimbert has seen a National Lacrosse League championship game, but he’s never participated in one.
“I was on the 2008 Bandits roster, but I didn’t get to play,” he said about Buffalo’s last title run, in which the team defeated Portland for the NLL title. Thorimbert did not play a game that season.
The Bandits’ faceoff specialist has a great chance to reach the finals as a key member of the team this year.
Buffalo is only one win away from reaching the NLL finals, and it could come tonight when the Bandits play the Rochester Knighthawks here (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM).
Thorimbert has been a big part of a stunning turnaround by the Bandits, which is all the sweeter because it was so unexpected. Buffalo finished the season by losing eight straight games. Teams often talk about throwing some sort of switch and playing well in the postseason, but it’s rare to actually do that. Buffalo has done it to this point.
“Absolutely, we’re 2-0 in the season that counts,” Thorimbert said. “You felt like it was just one bounce going wrong in games, and that things would change. It didn’t happen in the regular season. But against Toronto, it all came together. You knew it was coming sooner of later. I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier in the season.”
The veteran credits the team’s coaching staff for maintaining a positive attitude during the skid. That created a good atmosphere that made a turnaround more likely.
“They believed in us,” he said. “After a loss or in practice, you can have a negative environment. Guys say when that happens, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ The coaches were positive, and emphasized moving forward.”
Thorimbert, part of a defensive group that has picked up its level of play in the postseason, also mentioned a strategic change that has helped.
“We’re putting more pressure on the ball carrier,” he said. “The coaches tell us to keep pressure on the ball. When there’s more pressure, they aren’t able to sit back. In the last two games, we got back to pressure defense. It makes it really hard for the offense to work.”
Last week’s win over the Knighthawks in Buffalo puts the Bandits in the driver’s seat for the East final, as Buffalo has two chances to advance to the NLL final. The teams will play a regulation 60-minute game tonight. If Rochester wins, the Knighthawks and Bandits immediately will play a 10-minute mini-game to determine the East champion.
The framework for the NLL playoffs hasn’t had multiple games between teams since 1998, when Philadelphia beat Baltimore in a best-of-three series to take the title. Since the two teams met in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season, this structure means that Buffalo will have played Rochester in four of its last five games after tonight’s contest (not counting a mini-game if necessary). Since Rochester had a first-round playoff bye, the Knighthawks will play Buffalo four straight times.
“It’s good,” Thorimbert said about the string of games. “You get to know the other team. It gets more intense. Those are the ones you like to play, especially with a rivalry involved.”
Assistant coach Dan Teat says it feels like a Ontario summer league playoff series, when the teams play a best-of-seven final.
“Both teams know each other. There are no hidden secrets on what we’ll do at either end,” he said. “It’s going to come down to who can execute the game plan better. We know they come out hard at home. We have to match their intensity.”
Speaking of familiarity, Thorimbert will be staring at Rochester faceoff man Dylan Evans a great deal on Saturday. Thorimbert has had a slight edge at winning draws in the last three games.
“When you have so many games, you know his moves and you can counter it,” the Bandit said. “But more or less, it’s a matter of who gets there first, and go from there.”
Faceoffs are always important in the playoffs, since each possession grows in importance as the game goes on. Yet the pressure will be turned up greatly if the teams reach a 10-minute mini-game.
“It will be just like sudden-death overtime,” Thorimbert said. “You need the ball. You can’t change what you’ve been doing all season.”
The Bandits would prefer not to go through a mini-game, of course. But no matter how they get to the NLL Finals, if it takes 60 minutes of play or 70, they’ll be grateful for the opportunity.
“It would be awesome with the team we have,” Thorimbert said. “We’ve had some big ups and downs for the last two seasons. Playing with someone like John Tavares, it would be great to finally be a part of games like that.”