SAINT PAUL, Minn. – After spending last weekend on a bye, the Minnesota Swarm (5-3) travels to First Niagara Center this Saturday, March 17 to face the Buffalo Bandits (2-6) at 6:30 p.m. CT. With a win, the Swarm will sweep the season series against the Bandits for the first time in franchise history.
Having won two straight divisional games in the midst of a four-game road trip, Minnesota is looking to move three games over .500 for the first time since 2008. Saturday’s visit to Buffalo will also have a meaningful impact on the Swarm’s positioning in the West Division. With Calgary winning both of its games last weekend, the Roughnecks improved to 7-3 and bounced the Minnesota down to third place in the West.
“We have the opportunity to be in a place that we’ve never been in for a long time,” head coach Joe Sullivan said. “Three games above .500 is a heck of a lot better than being one game above .500. That’s the impact this game has and we know the implications it will have on the standings.”
One of the reasons for Minnesota’s hot start this season has been due its success against the East Division. The Swarm went a combined 1-11 against the East from 2010-11; the team is 2-1 in 2012.
“We really took the time in the offseason to build both our defense and offense in a way that we’d be better prepared to face those Eastern teams that play a smash-mouth style, where they get right in your face,” Sullivan said.
There might be no better example of a “smash-mouth” team than the Buffalo Bandits, who despite entering Saturday’s game having lost six straight, have the talent on both sides of the ball to make a late push for the playoffs. The Swarm defeated Buffalo – in convincing fashion – earlier this season at home for the first time in team history after winning 19-11 on Jan. 28. Minnesota was 0-6 against the Bandits at Treasure Island Field from 2005-11. In the win, four Swarm players recorded hat tricks: Ryan Benesch, Andrew Suitor, Kevin Ross, and Corbyn Tao.
“The anticipation for the Buffalo game is pretty big,” Sullivan said on this week’s meeting. “We had one heck of a match against them in Minnesota. You know that you don’t beat that kind of a team, with that kind of tradition and history the way that we did without probably having to pay the piper with a real physical game up in Buffalo this Saturday night.”
While Buffalo has struggled as of late, the Swarm has won four of its last five games after starting out the season 1-2, and has collected road wins over division rivals Washington and Calgary this month.
Minnesota’s offense currently ranks second in the league in power play goals (28) and is first in shorthanded goals (10). Benesch leads the team with 22 goals and is tied with F Callum Crawford (12g, 34a) for the team-lead in points (46). Benesch is just four goals shy of becoming the third player in team history to register 100 goals in a Swarm uniform. Ross ranks third on the team with 28 points (13g, 15a) and rookie T Jordan MacIntosh rounds out the Top Four with 24 points (12g, 12a).
On the other side of the ball, rookie goaltenders Tyler Carlson and Evan Kirk have fueled a young, athletic defensive unit that leads the league in both penalty kill percentage (59.6%) and forced turnovers (86). Carlson is 3-2 on the season, while Kirk is undefeated at 2-0.
When asked what it will take to knock off the Bandits for a second time in 2012, Sullivan listed three keys: attention to detail, energy and team toughness. Sullivan also added that what happened during the first half of the season is in the past, and that it’s time to re-focus.
“It’s just a matter of a lot of details now… making sure the guys are re-dialed in and understand that while we went 5-3 in the first half, we have to expect the same in the back half of the season,” he said.
The Bandits lead the all-time series between the two teams 13-3. This weekend is a back-to-back for Buffalo, as they will travel to Toronto on Friday night prior to hosting the Swarm. Forward John Tavares leads the Bandits with 42 points (18g, 24a) and G Anthony Cosmo – who the Swarm recently traded to Buffalo – is expected to start in net. Cosmo is 0-2 with a .699 SV% and 14.48 GAA in two appearances in 2012.
Minnesota returns home to Treasure Island Field on Friday, March 30 at 7 p.m. for a showdown against the Calgary Roughnecks for Heroes Night at the Hive. The Swarm will be honoring local military members, veterans, police officers, firefighters and nurses throughout the night. To get tickets: call 1-888-MN-SWARM or visit mnswarm.com. Lower level single game tickets can be purchased for just $20 to all remaining four home games.
Fans can watch this Saturday’s contest live online via the NLL Network by visiting NLL.com.