BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Last week the Bandits knew who they would face in the East Conference Finals before they even played their quarterfinal game against Albany.

Toronto and Halifax played Friday night as the Rock won 14-13 in overtime so Buffalo knew they’d face their biggest rival come the next round if they beat the FireWolves on Saturday. And leading up to those games last week I asked Dhane Smith if he would watch that game the night before they played and he did but had some conflicting emotions.

“At the time I didn’t really know who I wanted to win but just thinking I was like ‘I hope it’s Toronto’ because we don’t like them, they don’t like us and I think that’s just the best matchup,” Smith told News 4 Sports.

“I think there’s no excuses at this time, the two best teams that deserve to be in the East Finals are in the East Finals and I think it’s gonna be a good matchup.”

We’ve heard the phrase “lacrosse is a game of runs” and that was on full display in this game. Toronto took a 9-3 lead at halftime scoring the first five goals of the game but Halifax came storming back to outscore the Rock 10-4 in the second half. Halifax scored five straight goals in the fourth quarter but Toronto’s Tom Schreiber scored to tie the game at 13. Challen Rogers netted the game winner in overtime to give the Rock the win.

“It was crazy because at first I was like ‘wow this game’s over’ just when it got started and then you kind of saw the runs. And that’s what’s really cool about lacrosse in general, at any point you still have a chance to play and I think that’s what I kind of took from it. No matter what happens in this series, if we’re down by four or five goals we can kind of take that and be like ‘ok Halifax was able to do that, we can do that too.’ That’s what’s exciting about this sport,” Smith explained.

And that’s exactly what the Bandits know they have to limit those runs come Sunday in game one of the East Conference Finals against Toronto.

“Within the game there’s mini games that are happening between player and player and then in between quarters and then obviously the overall game. And you saw it with us against Toronto and then you saw it with the way Halifax handled Toronto in that other game so that’s exactly it,” Bandits captain Steve Priolo told News 4 Sports.

“It’s mitigating those runs and how do you contain your composure through those times when they’re scoring on you so I think that’s what’s gonna be the most interesting and I think that’s what we’ve learned most from the last games against them.”

Now the Bandits not only get ready to face their biggest rival but also are looking for some revenge as Toronto handed Buffalo two of their four losses this year including a 10-7 loss in the regular season finale.

“It’s been a rivalry I think going back to the 90’s right with Buffalo and Toronto and it’s been that same rivalry that’s carried us through the season. We got an upper hand on them with the first game and then they beat us the last two so it’s hard to beat teams multiple times in a row in this league and I think it’s just gonna be a great game on Sunday,” Priolo explained.

“It’s gonna be a fun series, again we hate them, they hate us and that’s what makes it exciting. It’s nice that we have home field advantage because I know our fans will show up and last game was incredible. I think there was 12,500 fans but it felt like it was a sold out crowd. It gives you goosebumps,” Smith said.

Speaking of that home field advantage, the Bandits will host game one and game three if necessary in this best-of-three series. And even though it is a series, because it’s so short players know it can flip to a win or go home situation very fast.

“It’s a three-game series, it’s not a seven-game series, every single game matters. That’s what I’ve been saying all year and that’s what I love about lacrosse is that every week you know you’re getting 110% out of the guys right? And it’s like every single game has always mattered, it’s a lot like football. We only get to play once a week so yeah you’ll stay alive if things don’t go your way, if you don’t get a couple bounces but that’s not really the point,” Priolo said.

“We need to take advantage of home field advantage because it’s always hard for us to kind of win in Toronto and if we can have the momentum going in they’re gonna be back on their heels and we might be able to take advantage of them at home and if not we get home advantage for game three,” Smith said.

And the Bandits remember that feeling of having their backs against the wall during the NLL Finals against Calgary a few years ago when they lost game one at home then we forced to try and win two straight.

“You can get a one game lead it’s night and day. We saw it when we played Calgary in 2019 when we went down that one game. Then it’s your in a do or die situation all of a sudden. We don’t want to relive that experience,” Priolo laughed.

The Bandits are coming off an impressive defensive performance against Albany in a 10-5 quarterfinal win last week where Buffalo shut down one of the top players in the league, Joe Resetarits who ended the regular season tied with the most goals in the NLL (47). The Bandits only allowed him to score once in last week’s game but Buffalo knows it’s a completely different offense they’ll face this week.

“With Albany it was a little bit different because everything ran through Joey so we knew that if we could mitigate him then we could basically win that game. He’s such a vital part of that offense. With Toronto they’re a little more dynamic in terms of their transition and different aspects that maybe one person can’t control so they’re gonna be running the ball up the floor and then they have a ton of guys that are threats on offense so it’s gonna be a full team effort and everybody’s gotta do their homework,” Priolo explained.

And Smith agrees.

“We can’t really key in on a specific player by any means but I think our defense is kind of coming together at the right time.”

That defense starts with the man in goal, Matt Vinc who thrives in big games. He ended with 45 saves last week and his presence has made all the difference since day one of joining the team.

“We were always a good team and to get us over that hump we needed that goaltender and he made us from a good team to a great team. And he made us from a playoff team every year for the most part to the number one seed almost every year,” Smith said.

And when it comes to preparing for the Rock this time around, Dhane Smith says it’s more about their game than it is worrying about what Toronto’s game looks like, something they realized they didn’t do in that regular season finale loss a few weeks ago.

“I think Toronto kind of showed their cards of what they’re gonna do defensively on us which helps us offensively. That being said I think last game we were so focused on what they were gonna do defensively that we weren’t really focusing on our offense. We are best when we dictate what we’re gonna do. We can’t let them kind of dictate what they want us to do and I think that was a big thing and I think we’ve learned from that,” Smith said.

Game one of the East Conference Finals is this Sunday night at KeyBank Center. Face-off is set for 6 p.m.