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Stock watch: Five up, five down for Bandits before Rochester rematch

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

In a league where parity abounds, every NLL team will go through a slump. The mark of a contending team, however, is avoiding extended skids that demoralize a locker room and promote selfishness and division on the floor. As we saw in Buffalo last year, those types of “culture” changes can doom a season.

After two straight home losses—14-12 to Toronto and 15-7 to Rochester, Buffalo leaves the not-so-friendly confines of the First Niagara Center and returns to Blue Cross Arena—a surprisingly alluring venue for the Bandits this year. Darris Kilgour’s club won 14-13 on a last-minute Tracey Kelusky goal on Jan. 19.

The game begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on YouTube.

Less than a month later, however, the teams are on markedly different paths. When Rochester head coach Mike Hasen returned veteran righty Mike Accursi to the offense, the Knighthawks’ attack has taken off—Cody Jamieson, Cory Vitarelli, Casey Powell, Stephen Keogh and Dan Dawson look like world-beaters on the attack. Momentum is on the side of the defending champs, who are rounding into form at a rapid rate.

“We also know that the Bandits were not at their best last weekend,” admitted Hasen on Wednesday. “They’re going to come out even harder to prove that last week was an anomaly on their side of things.”

The Knighthawks’ flamethrowers had little issue solving Buffalo’s Anthony Cosmo, whose goals against average has risen even higher to 14.47.

To make matters worse, Kilgour has little choice but to continue to trust his prized 2012 acquisition, as over-achieving backup Kurtis Wagar pulled muscles in his back late in the first half last week and will miss this week’s game.

Canadian Lacrosse League goalie Scott Komer—a Bandit from over a decade ago who was considered one of the top players not in the NLL by IL Indoor—was signed mid-week to provide depth, but we’d be shocked if he saw action in his first game in uniform. He’s recovered from concussion woes, according to In Lax We Trust, and he’s hysterical in this interview.

Though Buffalo saw several good looks at goal last Saturday, experienced net-minder Matt Vinc parried away 48 of 55 shots—many of which sailed into his chest or pads and troubled him little. First and foremost, the Bandits’ shooting accuracy absolutely must improve for them to have any chance in Saturday night’s rematch.

I know the above rationale sounds simple—and easier said than done, I suppose—but Buffalo wasn’t so bad in other phases of the game. The orange-and-black won the loose-ball battle 62-to-47 and won 18-of-26 draws, but the team’s Achilles’ heel—untimely penalties, and long ones at that—muted any advantage that the two prior stats provided.

Here’s the five up and five down list before Saturday, and trust me, the “up” five were a bear to determine:

Five up:

—David Brock, transition: Well, there’s at least one Bandit who’s shooting the ball well. The transition player has scored in three straight games—tallying five over that span—and was the only Bandit who looked confident solving Vinc last weekend. His loose ball totals are down after a season-high seven in the opener, but he’s Buffalo’s biggest threat in odd-man rushes now.

“Until Darris tells me to pull the ball out and slow it down I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing—walking in and shooting,” Brock said. “He’s given me the green light like I’ve alluded to earlier.”

—Kevin Brownell, transition: A debut is never easy, especially when it’s in front of 14,000+ frustrated fans. Kilgour didn’t have anything nice to say about Brownell following the game, but the only player he praised was Brock anyhow.

Positive notes on Brownell, who rarely stayed out in transition: he looked graceful, athletic and not as uncomfortable as we expected. At 24, he’s a bit of an older rookie, but he did little to discourage Kilgour from trotting him out again in the future.

—Mat Giles, forward: We thought there was a lot of talent on the Bandits’ right side, but the lackluster starts of Tracey Kelusky and Luke Wiles have suggested a shake-up may be needed. Sitting Wiles most likely won’t propel him out of a slump, and Kilgour stubbornly continues to place Kelusky on the active roster despite just nine points in six games—and no multi-goal outings.

There’s help in the wings—Mat Giles, Derek Hopcroft and Jamie Rooney are all righties too, and Kilgour alluded to some changes before Saturday in this week’s NLL conference call.

—Nick Cotter, forward: I’m not sure who he’ll replace on the active roster—maybe Mike Hominuck but probably rookie Carter Bender—but I think Cotter will re-enter the Bandits’ lineup this weekend (I think the ‘Welcome back, Cotter’ line is overplayed now).

The 26-year-old newcomer has only been active in half of Buffalo’s games this year, but the Tavares injury and Bender’s rough debut leave Kilgour with little choice. A willing shooter who’s a little turnover prone, Cotter should have an opportunity to stick in the lineup if he impacts Saturday’s game.

—Scott Komer, goalie: There’s really no one else to point to as the fifth “up” Bandits, so congratulations to Komer for getting back into the NLL. With the expansion Barrie Blizzard in CLax, Komer started the season 0-2 with a 15.50 goals against average.

According to IL Indoor, the new Bandit was in camp with Philadelphia before the Wings traded for Kevin Croswell to take his place. For what it’s worth, Komer allowed two goals to Roger Vyse and then got pulled against Derek Hopcroft’s Toronto Shooting Stars.

(Honorable mention: Jay Thorimbert, who’s been poor in transition but very solid on face-offs and loose balls—the chief expectations of his role.)

Five down:

—Billy Dee Smith, defense: I inexplicably left the Bandits’ big No. 3 off last week’s list, but he’s on it today. He’s as physical as ever—perhaps too physical considering his 11 penalty minutes in three games—and he managed to scoop up only one loose ball total between the Toronto and Rochester games.

Just one! Maybe the ship has sailed on Smith, who was an All-Star last season, or maybe he’s shaking off rust from missing training camp, serving a suspension and then getting hurt at work. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

—Anthony Cosmo, goalie: One of the traits that makes a good goalie in any sports is the ability to forget wrongdoings, and Cosmo must forget the battering he took against the Knighthawks when he suits up Saturday.

Fortunately for Coz, he’ll have a long leash, and assuming Buffalo’s defense improves markedly since the last outing, Cosmo will be one of the Bandits with the greatest sense of urgency, knowing that a GAA of 15 isn’t sustainable for a starting NLL goalie.

—Carter Bender, forward: It’s too bad that Bender’s debut had to come in such a rout, and he did score in his NLL debut. You can see his gifts—he’s big and has decent hands, but he isn’t playing strong yet, as he was pushed around by Rochester’s defense and committed a few turnovers by holding the ball too long in a crowd. The learning curve will be steep for the 23-year-old, and hopefully Kilgour gives him another chance soon.

—Luke Wiles, forward: To say he’s “gripping his stick” would be an understatement, and while it’s unfair to refer to last season’s excellence as an aberration, Wiles’ confidence has sunk to rock-bottom, and the net must look like the tiniest hole in a cheese grater for the Orillia, Ont. native. There’s no simple solution here, either—sitting Wiles may send a message but not improve his play, and he’ll just have to wriggle his way out of the slump by taking Kilgour’s advice: keep shooting.

—Tracey Kelusky, forward: He’s a repeat offender on this list, and I’m still failing to see why he’s trusted by Kilgour. The pedigree, experience and leadership are all there, but the production is not, and that makes his inclusion very tough to justify.

If you played a drinking game to the number of Kelusky’s ill-advised shots—whether they’re trademark over-the-shoulder shots or typical heaves without traffic in front of him—you’d be buzzing by halftime.

—Darris Kilgour, head coach and Steve Dietrich, GM: They’re not fully to blame for Buffalo’s two-game skid, but the 15-7 drubbing was certainly the low point of the season. We’re confident the Bandits can claw their way out—their last two opponents were excellent, in the team’s defense—but the Bandits’ leadership duo can expedite the process, whether it’s through acquisitions or changes with the active roster. How will they adjust? Will the alterations be subtle or drastic?

“We didn’t play very well in too many areas last week,” Kilgour said. “We need to play with more energy and more urgency—we need to defend better, we need to shoot better.”

(Photos courtesy of Cody Osborne, Robin David Brown and David Marino).

TAGGED: anthony cosmo, billy dee smith, buffalo bandits, darris kilgour, david brock, kevin brownell, mat giles, mike hasen, nll, rochester knighthawks

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