The Buffalo Bandits open up their 2015 National Lacrosse League campaign with a tough back-to-back weekend, first in New England to face the Black Wolves at Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the opener live on WatchESPN in U.S. and TSN.ca (live.nll3.aordev.com) in Canada.
Buffalo then heads home to host the Edmonton Rush for the opener at First Niagara Center on Saturday night. The Bandits are hoping to build on their undefeated preseason where they went 3-0 and look to use NLL Face Off Weekend 2015 as a springboard toward the goal of a Champion’s Cup.
Last season, the Bandits came within one goal of the NLL Champion’s Cup Finals when the Rochester Knighthawks eliminated Buffalo in the sudden death overtime of Game 3 of the East Division Finals. The team came within inches, a post here or a save there, from advancing to the final round.
Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat certainly wasn’t satisfied with how close Buffalo came last season.
“Instead of being happy with that, we realize we have some work to do beat a team like Rochester,” said Teat, referring to the team’s Thruway rival in the three-time defending champion Knighthawks.
The Bandits and Black Wolves are both excited to kick off their respective seasons in a new location, as New England will play their inaugural game at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut.
“It’s always tough to go into a new building that neither team is too familiar with,” Teat said. “The key for us is to stay as close to their intensity as we can because [New England] is going to come out guns blazing.”
The Bandits may find a bit of an advantage to playing twice on the opening weekend. With a few new faces in the lineup such first-round pick Brandon Goodwin and newcomer Jerome Thompson, the Bandits may be able to better evaluate their roster early in the season. This weekend also gives the team a chance to test their depth. In the event of a tweak or an injury, the Bandits are confident in their lineup to plug any holes.
Most fans and coaches will be ready to watch Bandits forwards John Tavares, Dhane Smith and Ryan Benesch in action for another season in black and orange. But another one to watch is Jerome Thompson, brother of Jeremy, Miles and Lyle, who hits the turf after finding his game after several years on the outside looking in. While his stick skills were never in question, Thompson dedicated himself to conditioning during training camp and made the Bandits’ 20-man roster.
“[Jerome’s] got a really unique skill set that not a lot of guys have naturally,” Teat said. “It’s going to be fun to watch him play.”
Though this is the first regular season game of the year, these two teams have become very familiar with each other throughout the preseason as the Bandits took both exhibition games from the Black Wolves. With a young and less experienced roster, second-year head coach Blane Harrison is looking to help the new players develop professional skills as they join the NLL for the first time.
“We are in a performance-driven league, and we have a number of young players and new players,” notes Harrison. “That’s kind of been the thing that the coaches and I have been wrestling with the last three or four weeks…how to quickly build chemistry.”
During the first scrimmage against the Bandits, the Black Wolves showed their teeth and had them against the ropes most of the way; however, timely goals cost the Wolves in Buffalo’s 10-9 win. The second scrimmage was nothing like its predecessor as the Bandits made quick work of New England, winning 17-10.
“They’re a very solid team, from goaltending out,” Harrison said. “We expect to be challenged in all three zones (defense, offense, goaltending), and we’re really preparing for a high quality, hard-fought contest.”
With the bitter taste of an 0-3 preseason record, coach Harrison and his pack look to learn from its mistakes and move forward. The roster’s mixture of old and new faces makes for a bit of juggling and tough calls with the first game of the season only days away. Focusing on the overall performance and improving on past performance, the starting lineup is still a work in progress for the second-year head coach.
“We’re still trying to find ourselves, but I think overall we’d like overall performance to go up,” Harrison admitted. “We felt really good about ourselves for most of training camp. Certainly, the last two scrimmages had all those goals and the mismatch when you’re talking with respect to rosters. But it was sobering and it was a cold bucket of water that we have to do things a little bit differently.”
New England’s core of seasoned veterans along with several former players-turned-coaches such as Tracey Kelusky and Chris Collins help the Black Wolves prepare for an exciting first season in their new home. This is not the same roster from Philadelphia and not the same atmosphere as the 2014 season. There is a chance to change past ideas about the team and start fresh.
“It’s an exciting time. Obviously, we’re excited to get a new arena, and the Mohegan Sun staff have been absolutely great to us,” said Black Wolves transition player Joel White, a rare American-born player wearing the captain’s ‘C’ this season. “We’re excited as a team, but in all honesty, we have to perform on the floor.”
Story by Steve Bermel (@BanditsBeat) & Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com.