February 4, 2009

Systematic Domination

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Ken Montour, half of the Buffalo's top-ranked goaltending tandem, leads the NLL with 6.67 goals against average for the 5-0 Bandits.
(Photo: Buffalo Bandits)

Can any East Division team catch Buffalo?

Unlike last season, when the Bandits needed a late rally to carry them into the playoffs, they are front runners, boasting a 5-0 record with games against struggling clubs on the horizon: Philadelphia (1-3) on Friday, Toronto (1-3) at home in the HSBC Arena on Feb. 14 and Toronto again in the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 20.

The defending National Lacrosse League champion Bandits are 12-2 dating to their key stretch last season, fresh off a 13-8 victory in Edmonton.

Buffalo showed its explosive nature against the Rush, taking a 3-0 lead and using three John Tavares power-play goals in the third quarter to t/javascript"> // --> gain an 8-6 advantage that grew to 10-6 early in the final quarter.

Although only five players scored, 11 were involved in setting up goals. Probable all-stars Tavares and Mark Steenhuis combined for 13 points, and Mike Accursi scored five goals on only 10 shots to boost his shooting percentage to .256.

The ability to finish is evident with his fellow goal scorer Roger Vyse at .313, followed by Tavares at .244 and Steenhuis at .224.

Tavares, the three-time NLL Most Valuable Player (1994, 2000, 2001) is a force of nature at age 40. Each time he steps on the floor, he adds to his NLL all-time records. They stand at 631 goals, 720 assists and 1,351 points.

At key times, he is clutch, including two game-winning goals and a feed to Steenhuis for the game-winner against the Wings.

Coach Darris Kilgour's appreciation stretches far behind Tavares' offensive contributions to include his gritty defensive work and his powerful leadership in the dressing room.

Steenhuis, a fleet blur in day-glow orange shoes, has transformed himself into a threat in set offenses as well as the transition game. Coming off the Most Valuable Player Award in the Champion's Cup Final _ five goals and one assist in a 14-13 triumph over Portland _ and career-highs in goals (34) and assists (41), the 2008 NLL Transition Player-of-the-Year, is on pace to smash both personal marks.

Thanks to dramatically-improved accuracy, Vyse, 27, is well ahead of his 2008 goal-scoring pace, which produced a career-high 21 goals in 14 games.

At the other end, a unique defensive scheme relentlessly hurries opposing offenses into making mistakes.

"We've been working on it for a long time, and the guys really have it down pat,'' Kilgour said. "It really causes problems.''

Edmonton coach Bob Hamley agrees.

"You're always pressured, you're never set and they've been at it two to three years and it shows,'' he said. "It doesn't matter who they are playing; they play it well.''

To top if off, the goaltending tandem of Ken Montour and Mike Thompson is the best in the league.

Montour, who made 47 saves against the Rush, leads the NLL with a 6.67 goals against average. Thompson is at 10.00. In the Bandits' closest game, a 10-9 decision over Minnesota, he made 58 saves.

While Montour played 59 more minutes than Thompson in the 2008 regular season, Thompson was in the cage for two of the three playoff games, including the title tilt.

The willingness of the pair to put aside their egos - and desire to be weekly starters - is one of the keys to Buffalo's success.

"Both goalies understand that it is good to get a rest and then, when we get to the playoffs, we'll go with whoever is hot,'' Kilgour said.

During timeouts, the one on the bench is quick to share his observations with the one getting laser-like shots fired at him.

"We both want to contribute any way we can,'' Montour said. "I try to help Mike whenever I can and he tries to help me. We support each other. We're pretty selfless that way. We just want to win.''

Montour is equally as adept at sharing credit with the defense. When asked about his 6.00 goals against average in his first two starts, he said: "To tell you the truth, I haven't been feeling that good when I've been playing, but I'm getting results. The defense is so good, so it doesn't matter. We're limiting shots, and we know where the shots are coming from. Our defensive scheme is not about any individuals. It is our system."

Throughout the entire team, familiarity breeds winning.

Between hoisting the title trophy and opening faceoff, Kilgour, who is also the general manager, made only two significant roster changes. Forward Sean Greenhalgh returned from injury, and forward Thomas Montour was acquired in the dispersal draft after Chicago folded.

"Oh yeah, definitely, everyone knows each other so well,'' Ken Montour said. "And we play in the summer together and against each other. There's no doubt that we really benefit from that. We were able to pick up this season where we left off last season.''

That's not the news East Division opponents want to hear, but as they strive to improve and gain the chemistry that's second nature to frontrunners, Kilgour will implore his team to focus on themselves and their goal of weekly consistency.

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