By Budd Bailey

The Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock had a not-so-instant replay of a game on Saturday night.

Remember last year, when the Bandits and Rock met twice in the playoffs? Buffalo won both games with literally less than a second left in both cases.

This wasn’t quite as dramatic. But Toronto still had a chance to tie this game in the final seconds, and didn’t. That left the Bandits as 11-10 winners … and the owners of the National Lacrosse League’s East Division title.

One of the common denominators of those games was Bandits goalie Matt Vinc, who came through for his team when it counted the most. He had a huge save with about 13 seconds left to preserve the one-goal lead.

“We’re super-comfortable with him back there with his experience,” teammate Chase Fraser said. “He’s the best in the business in what he does.”

You can imagine the reaction of the 16,861 in the KeyBank Center when the horn sounded. The Bandits were quite happy about it too. For Vinc, the game was a reminder of why he’s still playing indoor lacrosse at the age of 40.

“It’s a fun matchup,” he said. “Any time you get to play for first place, you like that competition and that challenge. … It seemed like it was the same script, as they got a couple of chances late. It’s a testament to their team. … It was a battle, and rightfully so, in a big game for first place.”

Buffalo’s route to the title was an unlikely one. The Bandits had been working on less than all cylinders for several weeks, squeezing out wins on an almost weekly basis. The exception was a blowout loss at the hands of Toronto three weeks ago in Hamilton, which figured to give the Rock the edge in Saturday’s crucial game. Yet it’s Buffalo that will be on top of the East standings when the regular season comes to an end in a week.

For a while, a happy ending for the Bandits seemed unlikely. They didn’t play a particularly crisp first half, especially on offense – echoing some of their play down the stretch. Buffalo didn’t score a goal in the first period, and only had two at halftime.

That put some extra pressure on Vinc to keep the Bandits in the game. Buffalo had fallen behind Toronto by a score of 7-0 three weeks ago, and it was important not to dig another hole like that this time.

“For the most part we were trying to establish some offense and get some looks,” he said. “We have some good talent up front and they’ll figure it out.”

Shortly after the start of the third quarter, the Bandits finally played with some fire on offense. Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith (seven points on the night) got Buffalo back in the game at 5-4, and Fraser scored twice in 63 seconds to give the Bandits their first lead.

Fraser missed much of the season due to offseason surgery, and hadn’t been sharp. But on Saturday he returned to his role of an emotional leader of the team, and scored a highlight-level goal between his legs off a rebound.

“We’ve got two games under our belt, we’ve got the dust off and we had fun with the team today,” Fraser said. “Everybody elevates each other out there.”

“He’s a very creative player offensively,” Tavares said. “He scored from the outside and the inside, and he had three tonight. It takes the pressure off us, off Josh and Dhane. It’s nice to have that secondary scoring.”

Still the game went back and forth, for the next several minutes. Toronto had retaken the lead and was up a goal with seven minutes left. Then Ian MacKay tied with 6:48, and Tehoka Nanticoke put Buffalo ahead less than a minute later. Nanticoke was just off the injured list, and put up 10 shots.

“It was really big (to have Nanticoke back),” Tavares said. “He’s a very smart player. I thought he had a lot of great looks. He had the one goal, and a lot of opportunities. He missed six weeks, so he has to get his timing and shooting back. That takes time. Hopefully he’ll be a little better next week.”

Byrne’s insurance goal was needed when ex-Bandit Corey Small (six points) moved the Rock within one with 3:48 left. A penalty on Toronto’s Greg Downing chewed up two of those minutes, but no one on the Buffalo side could rest until Vinc made a couple of huge saves in the final 25 seconds. Finally it was over … although not without a couple of postgame scrums to set up a potential rematch down the road in the playoffs.

“It was a fun night,” Tavares said. “That was two great lacrosse teams battling it out for first place. It went to the wire.”

The playoff race was still muddled late Saturday night. Buffalo is 13-4, a half-game ahead of Toronto (13-5) but in possession of the tiebreaker. San Diego defeated Las Vegas late Saturday night. That gave the Seals (13-4) the division title, since it is a half-game up on Calgary (13-5) and in possession of the tiebreaker.

Therefore, if Buffalo wins its game in Albany next week, it will be the top overall seed in the playoffs. San Diego could only tie the Bandits, and the Seals lost to Buffalo in their only regular-season meeting.

There will be time to figure out all of the possibilities in the coming days. The Bandits are too busy celebrating the 10th division title in their history. For what it’s worth, Buffalo’s four championships all came when the team won the division. The odds improve in the postseason with every home game, even if there are no guarantees about the outcome.

Tavares wants those potential home games, but he also wants to see his offense get a good game under its belts before the playoffs.

“As you know we’ve had a lot of injuries, and this is the first time in a while we’ve had a full offense,” he said. “We’re definitely trying to find that chemistry for the playoffs. We’ll want to certify first overall in the league, but we want a full effort.”

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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