NLL’s Rock, Bandits renew classic rivalry

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All the ingredients to hype up the upcoming playoff series between the Buffalo Bandits and the Toronto Rock are in place. Now it’s just on the two teams to live up to it.

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The decades-old rivals meet once again in the best-of-three National Lacrosse League East final which begins Sunday (6 p.m.) at KeyBank Center, with both teams in the best form they have been in a very long time.

The most intriguing element of this series is the best-offense-vs.-best-defense matchup. The Bandits (15-4) scored 247 goals in 18 regular-season games, 33 more than the second-place New York Riptide. The Rock (14-5), meanwhile, allowed just 166 goals, 17 fewer than the San Diego Seals.

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Rock goaltender Nick Rose led the league in goals-against average for the first time with 9.05. Helping him was a defensive corps that may have been the best seen here in many years.

“Every year we’re getting more experience with each other,” defender Brad Kri said. “We’re all at a certain age where we’re at our peak. Rosey’s trusting us more and we’re trusting him more.”

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The difference-makers were Mitch de Snoo, who collected 185 loose balls, and Latrell Harris, who played a full season after missing most of the 2019-2020 campaign.

“Latrell could be a defensive player of the year or transition player of the year, and De Snoo could be a transition player of the year,” Kri said.

The Bandits’ offense is led by Dhane Smith, who scored 41 goals and 94 assists for a league-leading 135 points, and Josh Byrne, who had 37 goals. They also received a strong rookie performance from Tehoka Nanticoke, who ended with 32 goals. But the Rock kept them in check in their past two meetings.

“We think that we have a defense that matches up with them well,” Rock coach Matt Sawyer said. “They’re really deep. They’re seven guys strong and any guy can go off any night.”

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“We’re going to have to be sound defensively.”

Ian MacKay led the transition with 11 goals, and captain Steve Priolo scooped 116 loose balls. Goaltender Matt Vinc was third in the NLL with a 10.1 goals-against average.

Both teams had interesting first-round matchups. Buffalo went to halftime against the Albany FireWolves tied 2-2. But the Bandits found their scoring stride to win 10-5. Vinc was outstanding, sealing the game with a penalty-shot save on Ryan Benesch in the fourth.

“Vinc made that save and the crowd went absolutely crazy and we were able to ride that momentum and close it out,” MacKay said.

Rose, meanwhile, made two rapid point-blank stops with a minute to play against the Halfax Thunderbirds and two more just as time was expiring, setting up the overtime, in which captain Challen Rogers, assisted by some great support checking by Josh Jubenville, scored to give Toronto a 14-13 win.

Meanwhile in the West Division final series, the Colorado Mammoth took a 1-0 lead after coming from behind to beat the San Diego Seals 14-12 on Friday night in San Diego. Zed Williams led the Mammoth with five goals. That series continues next Saturday in Denver.

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