The Buffalo Bandits should have a powerful motivating force on their side for the National Lacrosse League playoffs this year.
The Bandits have a chance to erase some of the memories of a stunning eight-game losing streak that closed their season when they open the postseason tonight in Toronto against the Rock (7 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM). Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley wants to put the late-season collapse in the rear-view mirror.
“It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through. … For whatever reason, and we still haven’t found the reason, we’re still losing,” he said. “The bounces aren’t going our way. We’re finding ways to lose. The message to the players is, that’s done with. We can’t worry about that.”
It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde season thus far for Buffalo. The Bandits were on top of their division just past the halfway point of the season, and their fans were daring to think about a chance at the team’s first championship since 2008. But Buffalo hasn’t won a game since March 15, a run that can temper the optimism of even the most enthusiastic fan.
“We had high expectations for this team. There were high expectations at 0-0 in training camp,” Cordingley said. “We were up to 8-2, and people were believing in it.
“Whatever happened after that, we deserve to be in the playoffs. We did have a real good first half at 8-2. Only three teams made it to the playoffs in the East, and we’re one of them. As much as it’s been a difficult situation, it’s done with.”
For those looking for reasons to stay on the Bandits’ bandwagon, three stand out. Experience can help at this time of the year, and the Bandits certainly are loaded with that.
“We have a tight-knit team. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed,” Cordingley said. “No one is pointing fingers. That’s a huge positive. There is a wealth of knowledge. John Tavares, Shawn Williams, Billy Dee Smith, Chad Culp, Ryan Benesch – they’ve been through it all. Derek Suddons is a really good leader. They are pulling young guys aside.”
That experience extends to the coaching ranks. Cordingley has coached two different franchises to championships in his career. He is one of only four coaches to win 10 career playoff games, with a 10-4 record in the postseason.
Meanwhile, Tavares and Williams – 45 and 39 years old, respectively – probably will consider retirement in the offseason. That may add urgency to the Bandits’ cause.
Then there’s the fact that the NLL is known for unpredictable playoffs. At least one team with a .500 record or worse has reached the final in the last four years; both Rochester and Edmonton had losing records when they met for the title in 2012. Since the league went to a two-division format in 2004, the division winners have never met in a championship game.
In Toronto, meanwhile, the bandwagon is fully loaded. The Rock (9-9) went 4-0 in April while Buffalo (8-10) lost five straight. That allowed the Rock to snatch the home-field advantage in tonight’s first-round game.
“I think it’s the total opposite of us,” Cordingley said about Toronto’s strong finish.
Rock coach John Lovello added, “We’ve had a more consistent lineup. Guys are more on the same page. I think we played well earlier in the season, but we would have a letdown every game. Whether it was a defensive or offensive thing, we’d give up a bad run. We’ve been more consistent lately, and our goaltending has been good down the stretch.”
The Rock have lost a couple of their big offensive weapons from a year ago. Blaine Manning retired and moved to an assistant coaching position with Toronto, while Garrett Billings suffered a season-ending injury that probably cost him the scoring title. The player who has done the most to fill in those gaps is Rob Hellyer, who went from 11 points last year to 79 this year.
Hellyer possesses “an amazing shot,” Cordingley said, “and he picked up his game this year with Blaine Manning retiring. In his last four games, he has 31 points. He’s taking advantage of an opportunity.”
The Bandits have a different sort of opportunity, starting tonight. Buffalo has had some good moments on offense and defense lately, but they haven’t come in the same game.
“As much as there’s a lot that our fans are disappointed about in the last half of our year, we as a team have to look at positives,” Cordingley said. “Our last few games have had some positives. Each side has to contribute. If we want to go far, we need 16 players and two goalies pulling the rope the same way.”