BANDITS ON A ROLL HEADING INTO BYE WEEKFeatures | 3/19/2011 3:50:53 PM | Michael Jafari
The Buffalo Bandits may be on a bye week, but their bench boss is still working hard to prepare the team for the stretch run of the National Lacrosse League season.
Buffalo heads to its break with a 7-3 record and is currently riding a three-game winning streak. So far, Head Coach Darris Kilgour likes what he sees from his squad.
“I love where we’re at right now because I think the team is starting to come together,” said Kilgour. “We had a lot of new pieces in the beginning of the season with little time to gel, but once the guys started to believe in the system and in each other, we got our confidence back. We’re now winning the close games instead of losing them, so we’re happy where we’re at, and hopefully we’ll improve.”
The Bandits had a mediocre 2-2 start, but they quickly turned it around by winning five of their next six games, including two straight over Boston heading into the bye week. Buffalo’s latest surge moved the Black and Orange into second place in the East division, and just a game-and-a-half back of the first place Toronto Rock (9-2).
“(First place) is definitely something we’re thinking about. We know there’s a lot of time between this moment and this team, but at the same time it is something we’re thinking about. We want to keep pace with Toronto, and we think we have a good shot to make a move at the end of the year,” said Kilgour.
The break couldn’t have come at a better time for Buffalo, as three important contributors will get a chance to recuperate from nagging injuries or illness. Buffalo’s leading scorer John Tavares (21-27-48) and Tracey Kelusky (10-21-31) have been fighting the flu bug for the past few weeks, while Mark Steenhuis (16-25-41) has played through a knee sprain since early in the season.
The rest is good for the key players of the team, but the break also puts a halt on the team’s hot streak.
“(Steenhuis) is getting close to 100%, but it’s always great to have a couple weeks off during the season because it gives the stars some time off to recuperate. Tavares and Kelusky have been sick with the flu and they have had a hard time recovering since our practices are so close to the games. At the same time, we want to keep playing with the roll we’re on. So it’s good and it’s bad, since we can give the older guys some rest, but we were playing well and want to keep playing.”
Kilgour’s team is in a good position going into the bye week this year, much better than where they were the previous year. Buffalo was 4-6 at this point last season, but the Bandits charged back and won four of their final six games to grab the last playoff spot. Although the Bandits have many of the same players as last season, the coach says there’s a big difference between the two teams, and that’s the defense.
“I think it’s the players believing the system and trusting each other. Last year we had pretty good success, but we let down at times,” recalled Kilgour. “This year, it doesn’t seem like we’re giving up the runs we gave up last year. I think the biggest change is that some of the guys on the backdoor are now veteran guys who are more experienced box players who don’t panic as much.”
While the veterans like Chris White, John Harasym and goaltender Mike Thompson are coming up big on the back end, the rapid growth of the team’s youngsters has been just as important to the defense’s success. In just his second season, Chris Corbeil has played in all 10 games this season and leads the team with 80 loose balls. Corbeil also earned NLL Defensive Player of the Week honors for a strong defensive performance versus Boston on March 12. He recovered five loose balls and forced one turnover in the win, and also scored his fourth goal of the season. Rookie Travis Irving has also impressed the coaching staff, as the team’s 2010 first round pick has been rock solid in his own zone.
“We didn’t think Irving was going to get a lot of playing time this year, but he has really stepped up and bought into the system. He’s not trying to do too much, and he’s not afraid to make mistakes, which leads to the trust of his teammates. He’s doing exactly what we’re asking him to do, and he’s getting better every week at it, which helps his confidence. Chris Corbeil has been amazing, and he is certainly looking like the player we knew we were getting when we drafted him.”
Although there is plenty to smile about in Banditland, Kilgour knows there is still a lot of room for improvement. The offense failed to reach 10 goals in half of the team’s games. Kilgour says the team’s scoring is a little bit of a concern, but he is working hard to correct it.
“We want to work on our shooting. It’s been sporadic at best this year, because some games we shoot real well, and others we haven’t. When you out-shoot the opposing team by an average of 10 shots a game, you should be winning by more than one goal each game. We want to improve on our shooting and the timing of our offense. Defensively we just need a tweak here and there, but we’re pretty happy on that, so we just want to improve our offense, which we always want to improve on,” explained the Bandits’ head coach.
Despite the team’s inconsistent offense, Kilgour was also quick to point out its recent surge, where they put up 60 goals in the last five games.
Buffalo’s three-game winning streak was all the coach needed to decide what to do with the team’s roster at the NLL’s trade deadline. To no surprise, Buffalo watched the deadline pass without making a single move.
“We did entertain one offer, but we thought we were good where we are at, and we didn’t want to shake up our team that was playing well,” said Kilgour. “We just got everyone used to each other, and we weren’t looking to do anything. One team called us to see if we wanted anyone, but we’re pretty happy with what we have, so we didn’t make a move.”
The Bandits may have stood pat at the trade deadline, but they believe that the best way for the team to improve is to look within the organization. Buffalo will have a rejuvenated bunch in Tavares, Steenhuis and Kelusky ready for the second half of the season, but Coach Kilgour expects two other Bandit forwards in particular to join the veterans in making an impact on the reminder of the season.
“Brett Bucktooth has been tremendous over the last four games. I see his confidence coming back, so we’re expecting him to have a big second half of the season. Brenden Thenhaus has also been doing a great job for us, even though he hasn’t put up the numbers that everyone expected. He’s doing a tremendous job, and hopefully he’ll get a couple lucky breaks in the second half of the season to get him on a roll.”
Buffalo will get back to work on Sunday, March 27 when they travel to Minnesota to take on the 5-4 Swarm. Faceoff is set for 2 p.m. inside the Xcel Energy Center. The bout can be seen on television sets nationwide, as the game will air on Versus Network.