By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits played their first game of the 2022-23 season on Saturday night, a contest against the Albany FireWolves in the KeyBank Center.
If they needed any sort of reminder that this is a new season, and that nothing that happened last season matters in the least this time around, the game ought to serve that purpose.
The Bandits dropped an 11-10 decision to Albany. That’s in contrast to last season, when Buffalo started off 6-0 and looked like a team that was a definite championship contender from Day One.
What’s more, they didn’t look particularly good along the way. The Bandits only led the game once, and that was for a grand total of 101 seconds when the score was 1-0. Otherwise, Buffalo was occasionally tied but usually behind. That’s not an easy way to play.
“It is tiring,” coach John Tavares said. “You feel like you have to push and push and push. You’re always trying to score that next goal and you feel that extra pressure.”
It didn’t take long for the team to figure out that this game would be difficult. The Bandits were down by three goals after a little more than 16 minutes of play.
“Early on our offense couldn’t get into a flow, and we were down 4-1,” Kyle Buchanan said. “The defense did a good job the whole night, but the offense had some opportunities but just couldn’t bury it.”
One of the Bandits’ problems was that Albany offered an unorthodox defensive look that must have been a little surprising.
“In a regular defense, it’s pretty much rights(-handed shot) on lefts, and lefts on rights,” Josh Byrne said. “They play the top side – very basic. Their defense is the total opposite – lefts on lefts and rights on rights. They try to take away underneath and give you the top side. They try to entice you into the middle…. Most teams say, stay out of the middle. They say, come to the middle.”
Another was that FireWolves goalie Doug Jamieson was solid. He stopped 44 of 54 shots, a save percentage of .814. Any number above .800 for a game is an outstanding effort and usually leads to a win. Jamieson may not have been spectacular, but he stopped most of the shots that he could see.
“We know what to expect with Dougie,” Kyle Buchanan said. “He’s a big blocker goalie. I thought we shot five-hole (between the legs) quite a bit, myself included. We have to stay away from that on him. He’s a successful young goalie, but we made him look good at times. We got inside a few times and hit some posts, had some repossessions, but we couldn’t beat him when it mattered.
It was almost as if the scoreboard resembled an accordion during the course of the game. Buffalo would fight back to narrow the margin to 4-3, and Albany would reply and take a 9-5 lead. And so it went.
A couple of moments in particular stood out as symbols of the Buffalo frustration. Early in the second half, the Bandits had a five-minute power play that overlapped a bit with a two-minute power play. Buffalo had one goal in that span, but also gave up a shorthanded score – so Albany broke even at an important spot of the game. Suitably inspired, the FireWolves had three straight goals to go up four.
“When you have the power play and one extra guy, you probably should score,” Byrne said. “It was frustrating.”
But Buffalo scored four straight goals of its own to tie the game at 9-9. The tying goal came on a play by Tehokah Nanticoke, who crashed into Jamieson to cause a scrum. Nanticoke – who finished with three goals – earned a fighting major and a goaltender interference major on the play. Two majors in one game equal an ejection in the NLL, leaving the Bandits without a key member of the offense. And on the ensuing Albany power play, Kieran McCardle gave the FireWolves the lead for good. Buffalo could get no closer than a goal at the end.
Dhane Smith finished with five assists, while Byrne and Chris Cloutier also had five points. Albany’s Tanner Thomson finished with seven points to lead all scorers.
If the Bandits needed another reminder that this season is different, they only needed to look at the out-of-town scoreboard. Halifax defeated Philadelphia by 10 goals on Friday, while Toronto blasted Vancouver by 11 goals. The East Division is not going to be easy, even with that sort of small sample size.
“It’s a tough division,” Tavares said. “There are no nights off. It’s easy to look back at last year, when we beat Albany in the first round. All of the teams are strong. You can’t base it on one game. You can’t base the next game on that score. I’m sure Vancouver is not going to lose like that in the next game. I’m sure Philadelphia will be back. They are good teams. … You have to show up prepared.”
Buffalo gets a week off to think about all that. The Bandits will return to action in two weeks to play the Toronto Rock in nearby Hamilton.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)