By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits came out of their “bye month” better than ever.
The Bandits started the season with victories way back on December 4 and 11. Then the schedule-maker gave them four weeks between games, thanks in part to major holidays falling on Saturdays. But if nothing else, they were rested and ready to play again in the KeyBank Center.
They looked in very good form as they whipped the Toronto Rock, 12-6, before 8,005 on Saturday night. The win improved their record to 3-0, and it came on the annual Tucker Out Lymphoma Night in honoring the late son of former Bandit Shawn Williams.
“It was weird to wait so long to get the season started, and then have a few weeks off in a row,” goaltender Matt Vinc said about the gap between games. “We didn’t have a lot of practices. I’m proud of the way guys came in focused. We were ready to play tonight. … It was a special night to get a big win.”
“Shawn Williams came in the locker room before the game, and told us how Tucker just loved his team so much,” Josh Byrne said. “At age 8 years old, he was all about his teammates. It almost brought me to tears. … It’s massive. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Shawn a little bit, and – hearing him talk about Tucker – you’ve got to give it up to the little guy. He was an incredibly strong. I think he’s part of the Bandits’ DNA, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of it.”
Sports teams love to talk about playing a full 60 minutes over the course of a game. The Bandits didn’t quite meet that standard, but 50 good minutes were more than good enough. That began right at the start, when Buffalo jumped out to a 3-0 lead through the first period.
“I think early in the game we did a good job of moving the ball,” said Byrne, who benefited from the passing by scoring the game’s first two goals. “We had a good flow.”
The night’s only flat spot came in the second quarter, when the Rock rallied with four straight goals to tie the game, 4-4. Ian MacKay put Buffalo back in front in the final minute of the half, but the Bandits had lost their way at times.
“They did a good job of pressing us,” coach John Tavares said. “They created some turnovers, and that was a turning point in the quarter. They scored two of their goals that way. We adjusted to that at halftime.”
The Bandits regained some momentum with the first two goals of the second half, but then came the decisive moment of the game. Rookie Tehoka Nanticoke was called for a five-minute major for high-sticking, giving Toronto a huge opportunity to climb back into the contest. Less than three minutes into the Rock power play, Byrne scored a dazzling shorthanded goal. It just felt like it was going to be a huge moment in the game – even if Toronto did get a goal back late in the power play.
“He’s unbelievable,” Dhane Smith said about his teammate. “Shorthanded he can still make plays and beat doubles.”
“Anytime you can be 1-1 on the scoresheet when you are facing a five-minute power play, that’s a win for us,” Tavares said.
Chase Fraser of the Bandits scored the last goal of third period, and the first goal of the fourth period – two minutes and 30 seconds apart. From there, victory seemed almost inevitable.
That was in part because of what was going on at the other end of the field. The Bandits’ defense did a good job for most of the night of preventing Toronto to get good shots. When Vinc is playing well, it almost seems like he’s standing in the right position – just waiting for the shot to hit him. There was a lot of that Saturday night. That’s why he finished with 45 saves on 51 shots. Since 2005, only six Bandits’ goalies have ever had a better save percentage in a game; Vinc turned in two of those games.
“Our guys really played well. I don’t know how many blocked shots we had tonight,” the veteran goalie said. “We had guys getting in lanes. It wasn’t off their hand or anything. They taking shots in the face, in the neck. They were doing what it takes to win.”
The cast of characters may change on these two teams, but Buffalo and Toronto figured out a way to maintain their reputation as rivals. The game devolved into a series of physical incidents in the final six minutes. The biggest came when Fraser got double-teamed into the boards by the Rock, forcing some Bandits to come charging to his aid.
“I really liked the way our offensive guys stood up for each other,” said Tavares, who certainly remembers games with Toronto in the “good old days” that made this matchup look like a dance contest. “That helps team character.”
Byrne and Fraser had four goals each, while Smith had six points (including No. 700 of his career). Chris Cloutier chipped in with a goal and six assists.
The win put Buffalo in first place in the East, a half-game ahead of Philadelphia and Halifax. The time for rest is over; it’s time to play a game each week until March.
“Ten weeks – here we go, baby,” Fraser almost shouted in the postgame interview.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)