As the first team in the league to approach the halfway mark of the season, the Bandits’ 7-2 record finds them in first place in the Eastern Conference.
This is a familiar position for the Bandits in the last few years.
And you, the fans of Banditland, leading the loop in attending the games as usual, have been truly amazing with your love and support – through incredible emotions this past year.
I’ve mentioned it year after year; the Bandits are an excellent team. They have an incredible amount of talent and will have a surplus of players who can step in and contribute.
The stock is more robust this season, with a tighter family atmosphere and a more business-like approach.
“I thought we have played well in the first half, but we have some areas where we need to clean up,” said Bandits GM and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich.
“We need to be more disciplined as we can’t continue to give teams an extra three to four power plays every game. Overall though, I like where we are.”
The club is in a great position to start the second half but with humility and strict focus.
“I can’t complain about our record of 7-2, but I believe we could have been 9-0. I definitely feel that the team is getting better in all facets of the game,” said Bandits head coach John Tavares. “We need all five guys to play hard, so we always try to improve every game.
“A sign of a great team is to adjust to the game and find ways to win, and in the last three games, we found a way to win.”
And they have been doing it without the services of Chase Fraser, Chris Cloutier, and now Josh Byrne. But the mixture of younger players integrating into the roster has sparked some newfound enthusiasm.
This bodes well for the strong play of Tehoka Nanticoke, Kyle Buchanan, and Ian MacKay.
“We are feeling good coming into what we want to look like later in the season,” said Brad McCulley, who has earned regular playing and becoming a significant contributor up front. The second-year forward had a career night last Saturday with two goals and three assists.
“After dropping those two games, we’ve been building on it and finding our stride. We are working towards finishing strong and being a hard team to play against.”
And McCulley understands his role while Byrne remains out.
“Byrnzie is irreplaceable. He is a very, very talented player, and he’s a leader and a heart and soul type of guy. It will not be one player; it will be our entire offense just firing out there and clicking, making up for his absence.”
With the second half schedule looking challenging, the light February schedule, with two bye weeks surrounding the February 18 home game against Philadelphia, bodes well for healing.
“We aren’t that far away from seeing Josh, Chris, Chase, Nathaniel Kozevnikov, and Justin Robinson back in the lineup, which will only add to the depth that has already proven to be pretty strong,” said Dietrich.
And then there is the Great Dhane.
Dhane Smith has been phenomenal.
On yet another career and record-setting pace, Smith leads the league in scoring with 19 goals and 53 assists for 72 points, a 16-point lead over second-place Tom Schreiber of Toronto.
Averaging eight points per game, Smith is on his way to setting a new NLL scoring record (established by Smith in 2016 with 137 points) with a potential 145-point season.
Smith set a new NLL assist record last year with 94 and could very well break the 100 plateaux this season with his pace.
In addition, the Great Dhane has recorded three eight-assist games and three four-goal games. Like Tavares in his playing days, he makes other Bandit players better.
From my perspective, Smith possesses an uncanny ability to read the floor and make passes while being double-teamed most of the time. His swivel and pivot plays are unique. And given the space, his shot is dead on.
Watch Smith’s positioning as he receives the ball from McCulley, then seeps into the right side and goes over the top for his fourth goal of the night.
Here is a perfect example of Smith picking his shot after Tehoka Nanticoke, on a bull rush, makes a great feed to Smith, who fires the shot for a goal.
His athleticism and lacrosse knowledge make him the most gifted player in today’s game. No wonder Smith is a two-time league MVP.
Just sees the floor differently. Watch this.
Nanticoke and Smith team up, with Smith already knowing Brad McCulley is in position, who then fires immediately and finds the net.
Defensively, the Bandits have done their job without much fanfare. Just hard work. In seven of the nine games this year, the defense and Matt Vinc have held the opponent to 10 goals or less.
“First thing is Matt. It always starts there. But I believe that our defense is supremely underrated,” said Dietrich. “Our leadership group led by Steve Priolo and Nick Weiss on the backdoor lead by example.
“They always communicate with the guys on the bench, going over things that happened and how they can do better.”
Priolo is second in NLL defensive scoring, first in assists (12), second in blocked shots (11), and second on the team with 68 loosies. Ian MacKay leads the club with 69.
Nick Weiss enters the second half of the season on a nine-game point-scoring streak. The alternate captain is third in the NLL with 16 caused turnovers, tied for second on the team with 68 loosies, and has eight soakers (blocked shots).
Size and athleticism are becoming the norm in the NLL, and the Bandits have followed suit.
“The defenses are taller and heavier while staying very athletic. A lot of teams now are using the size to the advantage, staying tighter and trusting the goalies to make outside shot saves,” noted Dietrich.
Goaltender Matt Vinc just earned his 140th career win last Saturday night. He leads the league in wins (7), Saves (380), and minutes played. His record as a Bandit is 42-12.
The Bandits transition, too, has been solid of late. Priolo and Bryce Sweeting display their talents.
In this video, watch Nick Weiss set up Dylan Robinson, who then finds Priolo for a goal to tie the game at five.
Then 22 seconds after the Brandon Robinson goal, Dylan Robinson finds Priolo already in transition. Watch Buchanan with a no-look pass to a wide-open Bryce Sweeting, who scores his first of the season.
The second half of the schedule will be tough, starting with Philadelphia at home on February 18. Two games with Halifax and Toronto (on a five-game winning streak). Then a scoop of western teams with Colorado and San Diego. New York and Albany round out the final nine regular season games.
“Nothing is easy in this league,” noted Dietrich.
The Bandits are off this week, and the next game will be on February 18 at home against Philadelphia.
Enjoy the Super Bowl.