The stage is set for the biggest regular season matchup of the season for the Buffalo Bandits so far this season.
The Bandits return to action for the first time in 14 days on Saturday night when they host the Halifax Thunderbirds in a huge North Division showdown.
Faceoff is at 7 p.m. and tickets are on sale now.
The Bandits (6-3) are trying to chase down the Thunderbirds for the top spot in the division as they currently sit a game back of Halifax (7-2) and are also tied for second place with the Toronto Rock (6-3).
The Bandits can not only tie Halifax atop the division standings Saturday night, they can also exact some revenge for one of their three losses on the season.
Halifax visited KeyBank Center on Dec. 28 and handed Buffalo its first loss of the season. In that game, the Thunderbirds used a 6-0 second quarter to pull ahead and cruise to a 15-10 win. Mike Burke led the Thunderbirds that night with eight points (2+6). Ryan Benesch had a hat trick and three assists.
Bandits forward Corey Small said the team has had this game marked on the calendar for a while because of what happened the first time these two teams met.
“Obviously division games are huge,” Small said. “At the end of the day, we play these guys three times and we want to win two of three to take the season series, so it’s definitely a big game for us.”
In order to knock off the Thunderbirds this time around, Buffalo will need to reignite its offense, which has been dormant in the last two games. After being held to one goal in the second half of a 13-9 loss at Toronto on Feb. 9, the Bandit offense was shut down in a 7-6 loss to Philadelphia in their last game on Feb. 15.
In the loss to Philadelphia, the Bandits were without key offensive mainstays Dhane Smith and Chase Fraser. Garrett Billings led the Bandits in points with a goal and three assists, while Corey Small led the way in goal scoring with a hat trick.
“The last game was tough,” Small said. “Obviously we were missing Dhane and Chase from the lineup and those are huge holes. I thought guys did a great job stepping in. I think everybody has to carry the load of those missing guys from the lineup. I don’t think we did a good job of it last week. I think we’re all eager to get back out there and prove we’re better than a six-goal offense.”
To help jumpstart the offense, the Bandits swung a trade this week to bring in Dan Lintner and Frank Brown from the Rochester Knighthawks. Buffalo sent Dallas Bridle and Thomas Hoggarth, as well as second- and third-round draft picks in 2020, to Rochester for Lintner, Brown, and a fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Lintner had 5 goals and 12 assists in nine games for Rochester this season. Last year, the forward from Courtice, ON had 20 goals and 17 assists in 18 games for the Toronto Rock. He is in the fifth season of his NLL career.
Small thinks the addition of Lintner should aid a Buffalo offense that is looking for some extra firepower with key players banged up.
“We brought in Dan Lintner to fill in that gap for us and he’s a great player,” Small said. “I think he can provide some good offense for us.”
Buffalo also adds to its defense in the trade with Rochester by bringing in Brown, a Salamanca native in his third NLL season. He played three games in Rochester this season, scoring once. He also collected eight loose balls. He had 12 points and 36 loose balls a year ago with the Philadelphia Wings.
Meanwhile, Josh Byrne continues to lead Buffalo in goals with 24. He is five off the league lead of 29 by Toronto’s Rob Hellyer.
Chris Cloutier is third on Buffalo in points with 34 (16+18). He is followed by Corey Small’s 29 points (15+14).
While the Buffalo offense has struggled to get going as of late, the Buffalo defense has been stout, giving up just 20 goals in two games to talented Toronto and Philadelphia teams. The Bandits have been led on defense by Mitch de Snoo and his 15 caused turnovers, which are third most in the league. Meanwhile, Ian MacKay leads the Bandits with 81 loose balls, tied for fifth most in the league.
In goal, Matt Vinc is playing at his highest level of the season so far. His 379 saves are fourth most in the league. He is currently sporting an .801 save percentage and an 11.12 goals-against average.
The Thunderbirds will be in a battle for the top spot in the North Division for the second straight weekend. Last Friday, they faced a Toronto team that had a chance to tie them atop the standings. Halifax came away with a 9-8 victory, snapping a two-game losing streak.
The Thunderbirds are led in scoring by Benesch, who has 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points. Right behind him is Cody Jamieson with 41 points (17+24). Benesch and Jamieson have been the offensive stars for Halifax, but they’ve received support from Burke (29 points), Stephen Keogh (27 points), and Clarke Petterson (27 points).
Halifax has had a strong defense all season long, giving up just 88 goals on the year.
The star of the Halifax defense is Jake Withers. The 26-year-old defenseman from Peterborough, ON is second in the league with 109 loose balls. He is also a star at the faceoff circle, leading the league with a .773 faceoff win percentage.
The Thunderbirds also rely on workhorse defenseman Graeme Hossack, who is second in the league in average time on the field at 28:01. He has also chipped in offensively with 15 points, fifth most among defense and transition players.
Backstopping the Thunderbirds is Warren Hill, the league leader in wins this season (7). Hill has the fifth best save percentage in the league at .813. Hill made 39 saves in the win over the Bandits back in December.
Small said the Bandits didn’t take advantage of opportunities to score against Hill in that matchup and hopes they have figured out how to solve him this time around.
“It looked like we had a lot of great opportunities to score and I don’t know what it was, but it looked like we just weren’t hitting our spots with our shots. We just weren’t executing the play by scoring in the end. I think that’s a big thing for us to just focus on our shooting. Our coaching staff did a great job of breaking down the good areas to score on [Hill] and the places to focus our shots on. Hopefully we can take that into the game and be more successful.”
If the Bandits are victorious over the Thunderbirds on Saturday night, they will move into a first-place tie with Halifax atop the North Division standings. They will also be keeping an eye on Toronto, who visit Saskatchewan on Saturday night and can also move into a first-place tie with a win and Halifax loss.
Buffalo and Halifax will get another up close and personal look at each other next weekend when the Bandits travel to Nova Scotia on Sunday, March 8 to face the Thunderbirds for the third and final time in the regular season at 2 p.m. at Scotiabank Centre.
🔸Lacrosse ball surprise
🔸Special ticket offer
Full Tucker Out Lymphoma Night details: https://t.co/hphJPZyh7C pic.twitter.com/PPGrXFG3DB
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) February 24, 2020
Saturday night’s game at KeyBank Center will be the seventh annual Tucker Out Lymphoma Night, honoring the memory of Tucker Williams, who was the son of former Bandit Shawn Williams and lost his battle with Burkitt lymphoma in 2014.
Special jerseys will be worn by both the Bandits and Thunderbirds during the game. These jerseys were designed by Tucker’s brother Dyson. A special game ball will also be used, featuring the Tucker Out Lymphoma logo.
Select players' Tucker Out Lymphoma Night shorts are up for auction!
Bid now: https://t.co/Xs7RQlyTCQ pic.twitter.com/6Jx6gF6MPe
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) February 25, 2020
Dylana Williams, Tucker’s sister, will sing the Canadian national anthem prior to the game.
An auction for Bandits game-worn jerseys and shorts is currently ongoing now at Bandits.com/Auctions. There will be additional items available for bid in the lead up to the game. The auction for Bandits’ jerseys and shorts will end at the beginning of the third quarter on Saturday night.
Prior to the game, fans will have the opportunity to take part in the Bandits’ Bald for Bucks event, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Each fan that raises money for the “Buffalo Bandits Fan Team” can have their head shaved by a Bandits player, in addition to receiving two tickets for Saturday’s game. All proceeds will be donated to the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in the name of Tucker Williams and his family.
Fans can donate or register for the event by visiting Baldforbucks.org or Facebook at Facebook.com/BaldForBucks.
Tickets for Saturday night’s game are still available. The game will also be available to stream for free on B/R Live, Twitter, and Facebook as it is the NLL Game of the Week. The radio broadcast will be available on ESPN 1520 and WGWE 105.9 FM in Salamanca.