We enter the Christmas break, when no NLL games will be played until December 30. It could be good scheduling for the Bandits and the league, as outside the lines, we battle again with the flair up of COVID-19 strains that paralyzed this game for twenty months.
“Stay healthy and continue to work out on your own” is the standard refrain from the Bandits coaching staff as the club prepares for its scheduled restart on January 8, at home, against the Toronto Rock for Tucker Out Lymphoma Night.
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“It’s not like we will be the only team on an extended bye, but it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be like an extended training camp for us. We are going to take one week off and practice on a weekend to simulate a game weekend the best we can,” said Bandits general manager and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich.
“John (Tavares) will deliver a message, and I guess the benefit to us having the weeks off is hoping we can be healthy. It’s not going to be easy, but these guys have to have the proper mindset to stay ready, stay working, and exercise so we can hit the game running when we play Toronto.”
Run, Forest, Run
And run they will off the enthusiasm of their 2-0 start. While there is still plenty of work to be done with the team’s deployment and understanding of systems, there’s a complete buy-in already, as the Bandits have shown how strong they are on both ends of the playing surface.
“Those weeks are going to be tough, but we are still going to be able to practice and see each other, but also nice that we can spend some time with family over the holidays,” said Bandits defenseman Justin Robinson. “I don’t think much is going to change, and we are going to come back and be right in gear.”
The Bandits are tweaking those gears, especially on offense. When you have eight incredibly talented left and right-hand shooters, the coaching staff can design a different attack where one player, or two, will have a big night finding rope.
“I’ve played with a lot of great players throughout my career, and this team is no different, with a lot of great players and playmakers,” said Connor Fields, who has eight goals and three assists already. “It’s just someone’s night each night.
“It helps to have a great goaltender and defense. Credit them for keeping us in the game while we find our groove.”
The buy-in on defense is so necessary early in the schedule. The Bandit defenders have been strong, including the play of captain Steve Priolo with 19 loose balls and four caused turnovers. Robinson as well has been credited with 13 loosies. Nick Weiss had five blocked shots on December 11 against the K-Hawks. Bryce Sweeting has been with checks, pokes, and passes all over the floor.
Ian MacKay jumped right in with no training camp and went full speed. Brent Noseworthy has an expanded role, and Matt Spanger jumped back on the turf with a spring going 1+1. Ethan O’Connor has been solid scooping nine loose balls. And, too, Justin Martin and Kevin Brownell, who missed the K-Hawks game with injuries.
“We are still trying to nail down our defensive systems. It’s been tough because four veterans have been out, and it’s going to be nice when we are whole, where a group of guys is used to playing together can play together,” Dietrich said.
“It’s always nice to have depth, but I like to be selfish and have everybody healthy because I think we have a real good unit.”
Between the pipes, what more can you say about Matt Vinc’s performances. A league-leading .851 save percentage says it all.
At least I note the missing link on offense over the seasons: Kyle Buchanan. “As advertised,” said Tavares after game one. The nine-year vet has scored 1+7, and more importantly, scooped 12 loose balls, setting players up.
“We’re out here to win. Everybody has a job to do, so make sure you are doing yours,” Robinson said.
It’s coming on Christmas, and they’re cutting down trees. They’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace.
Merry Christmas, everybody!