Once again, the National Lacrosse League’s East division champion will either be the Toronto Rock, or the Buffalo Bandits.
On Saturday at HSBC Arena, the fierce rivals will square off with a trip to the Champion’s Cup title game on the line.
Toronto rallied from a 6-0 early deficit at the ACC to stun the Bandits and advance to the final last season, where they lost on the road to the Washington Stealth.
Though the game hasn’t started yet, the Rock is in a similar hole already, since the Bandits draw a league-leading average crowd of 17,096 passionate, vocal supporters a night.
Toronto hung in, but lost at HSBC 15-14 in overtime back in late January and dropped 2-of-3 overall to the Bandits for the second season in a row.
“They came into our rink and kicked us pretty good,” said Rock head coach Troy Cordingley of Buffalo’s 11-8 triumph a month ago that ended up as the tie-breaker, ensuring Buffalo got home-floor advantage.
Buffalo’s dynamic duo of all-time league scoring leader John Tavares and orange shoe-clad Mark Steenhuis have long had their way with the Rock and will have to be watched closely.
Buffalo also is helmed by Darris Kilgour, the all-time NLL leader in coaching victories, who will be up against Cordingley, his former assistant and Bandits teammate, for the second post-season in a row.
Rock veteran Blaine Manning is confident the Rock can upend the Bandits, despite the hostile environment.
“We’ve had some success down there the last couple of years and if we play like we did (last Sunday when the Rock beat Rochester 10-8 to open the playoffs) we’re going to have a chance and that’s all we can ask,” he said.
“I think we’ll come to play on Saturday.”
Buffalo-Toronto matchups are always physical. The teams had a full-scale line brawl back in the pre-season in December and the game was actually called in the third quarter.
“What a fitting end,” said Rock captain Colin Doyle.
“We start the season with the brawl against them ... there’s a lot of nastiness, a lot of hate, they would love nothing more than to send us back and I know we’d like the same.
“I expect an intense, gruelling effort and the team that executes better, the team that wants it more is going to go home the winner.”
Though the two franchises have had dozens of regular season battles, the only other post-season meeting besides last year’s Rock win came in 2004, when the Bandits shocked the Rock 19-10 at the ACC to advance to the East final.
So, consider this the rubber match.
The winner will either host Washington, or head to Calgary, if the league-best Roughnecks (11-5) do the expected and dispatch the reigning champs later on Saturday night.
Once again, a loss would mean the end of the hall of fame career of Rock keeper Bob Watson, who will retire whenever the Rock’s run ends.
The wily veteran had advice for how to succeed in Buffalo.
“It’s a great atmosphere, it’s OK when things are going well (for the visitors) ... but you have to get momentum when momentum starts to go away,” Watson said.
“They are a very high-powered, offensive team, when they get on a roll they’re tough to stop. We have to play our game and trust each other.”
Watson and Doyle are both in search of their sixth championship with the Rock.
To get there, they will have to go through Buffalo.
“It’s going to be a hell of a lacrosse game,” Doyle said.
No doubt about that.