Sigh of relief into playoffs: Three up, three down for Bandits
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • April 25, 2012 @ 10:26am
Say what you want about the fact that eight of the nine National Lacrosse League teams advance to the post-season. Had the Buffalo Bandits stumbled against the Rochester Knighthawks last Saturday and the Washington Stealth next weekend, the possibility was real that head coach Darris Kilgour’s team would be the only NLL outfit to miss the playoffs. That scenario would have been the most humiliating in the Bandits’ proud history, especially considering the talent and expectations this team carried into the 2012 season.
The embarrassment was avoided with Buffalo’s 14-9 victory over Rochester, as the Bandits clinched a playoff berth—even though a post-season home game is not a possibility. Saturday’s game against the Stealth (10:30 p.m., NLL Network), the only NLL club to miss the playoffs, is a perfect tune-up for the banged-up Bandits, especially when it comes to winning on the road. Buffalo is 2-5 away from the First Niagara Center this season, allowing 97 goals while tallying only 81.
Here are three players up for the Bandits:
1) Anthony Cosmo, goalie: Those shaky outings against Toronto and Calgary at the beginning of Cosmo’s Bandit tenure have been forgotten, as the former NLL Progressive Goaltender of the Year award winner has blossomed behind a more sturdy, organized Buffalo defense. The mid-season acquisition from Minnesota has sparkled in his last three outings, keeping his goals against average below 10 in the Philadelphia, Edmonton and Rochester affairs.
His outlet passing is a major upgrade from the injured Mike Thompson’s, and this asset has made Jeremy Thompson, Mark Steenhuis and Tommy Montour more dangerous in transition. We expect Cosmo to get the nod in Buffalo’s playoff opener.
2) Mark Steenhuis, transition: There’s no question that Steenhuis can stagnate the Buffalo offense with his individual forays, but still, at 31-years-old with a body that’s prone to nagging injuries, he’s incredibly valuable to Kilgour’s team.
He plays the top of the diamond on the penalty kill, relentlessly chasing the opposition’s best scorers, yet also has the energy and ability to be the team’s best distributor on the offensive end—when he’s willing to, at least. Steenhuis has totaled 14 points—with seven goals and seven assists—in the Bandits’ last two home wins. He’s peaking at the right time, and the true test will be whether or not he can produce on the road, where he has 20 points in seven contests this year.
3) Tracey Kelusky, attacker: It’s taken a lot longer than Bandits fans would like, but Tracey Kelusky seems to have adapted his game to fit Kilgour’s style. Playing a little more simply has benefited TK, as we’ve seen fewer low-percentage “behind-the-back” shots recently, and the 36-year-old showed a nice connection with Mat Giles for his two goals Saturday. Eased back from a concussion that was originally reported as a lingering Achilles’ tendon injury, Kelusky shook off the rust quickly in his return.
“Tracey played really well—he buried the opportunities he got,” Kilgour said. “We sat him out the fourth quarter because we wanted to give him a rest.”
Accustomed to playing on the perimeter as the focal point of Calgary’s attack during his prime, Kelusky has accepted a lesser role on the left wing with the Bandits in the twilight of his career. With a Champions Cup already under his belt in 2009, however, TK’s veteran savvy and composure will be useful on the road in the post-season.
(Mat Giles probably deserves a place here, but he’s been very steady—not necessarily “up” or “down.” Needless to say, his production will be counted on.)
[See photos from the Bandits’ win over Rochester here, courtesy of Buffalo.com photographer Dave Marino.]
Three players down:
1) Roger Vyse, forward: With Darryl Gibson nursing an injury, Brandon Francis serving a three-game suspension and Steve Priolo out for the year with mononucleosis, there’s a good chance Vyse will remain in the lineup by default. He hasn’t, however, made the most of limited opportunity—only one of his three assists Saturday was primary—and his outside shots flew smack into the chest of Rochester’s goalie Matt Vinc. Vyse looks to be the odd man out in Buffalo’s offensive plans.
2) Mike Thompson, goalie: Thompson’s sprained knee comes at a particularly inopportune time, as his counterpart Cosmo has stolen the goal-tending reins late in the season. According to the Buffalo News Bandits beat reporter Budd Bailey, the sprain is minor, and it seems likely that Thompson will be healthy in two weeks time. Will Kilgour want to count on a goalie returning from injury in a playoff road game? Probably not.
3) John Tavares, forward: JT’s quiet outing against Rochester—no goals, two assists—isn’t a huge concern. Darris Kilgour’s post-game comment was interesting, though: “I don’t know what [Tavares] was doing tonight—he passed up a lot of good opportunities. I kept telling him, ‘Just shoot it, just shoot it. I don’t care if there’s a guy in the shooting lane, you have 2,000 points, whoever you’re thinking about passing to probably is 1,500 points behind you.’” Could Saturday have been Tavares’ final game as a player at the First Niagara Center? Is retirement really a possibility?