By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits’ 16-11 win over the Halifax Thunderbirds on Saturday afternoon at the KeyBank Center came with some checks on the list.
Clinch a playoff spot more than a month before the start of the postseason? Check.
Win the first game of a home-and-home series with one of their biggest rivals in the East Division? Check.
Have some adversity for a change, and overcome it? Check.
That’s not a bad day’s work.
Let’s start at the very beginning. The Bandits improved to 11-1 on the season – their best record ever after 12 games. They were clearly headed for the playoffs before; this win just made it official. The Bandits are the first team to wrap up a spot in the postseason. Still, it’s always nice for the team to know that they will have something to do in early May.
“That’s great. It’s nice to get that out of the way,” Buffalo coach John Tavares said. “You can’t think about taking any time off or any games off. We want to keep going. We’re on a good run, but we want to keep filling the win column.”
Then there’s the division race to ponder. The Bandits went into the contest two games ahead of Halifax in the standings in the East Division. If Buffalo had lost on Saturday, its lead would have been down to a single game – with a rematch coming up a mere 28 hours later in Halifax. Another loss would have tied the division race, and given the Thunderbirds the first tiebreaker in the playoff seedings.
This way, the Bandits are three games up with six to play on Halifax (8-4). If they lose on Sunday, they are two up with five to go. That a bigger hill that what Halifax faced on Friday (two down with seven to go). If Buffalo wins, it will be four up on the Thunderbirds with five to go.
In other words, the Bandits only needed to avoid a sweep to have a satisfactory weekend. They have done that, and can have a relaxing plane ride to Nova Scotia.
As for adversity, Buffalo encountered some turbulence in its almost stress-free season during the first half of Saturday’s game. The Bandits led for most the first quarter, and Josh Byrne got a power-play goal to give his team a 6-3 lead early in the second. But the Thunderbirds responded with five straight goals to taken an 8-6 lead at halftime. Buffalo looked disorganized at times on both offense and defense, and that including giving up some goals that everyone would have liked to have back.
“I didn’t think we had a bad first half,” Tavares said. “I thought we controlled the game when it was 6-3. Then we gave up a shorthanded goal and they went on a five-goal run.”
Halifax made it 9-6 at the start of the third quarter, and the situation became more serious when Steve Priolo of Buffalo picked up a cross-checking penalty. However, Ian MacKay came up with a shorthanded goal to stop the bleeding right there.
“Going into the half, we weren’t the happiest with our performance – giving up the lead and going down a couple of goals,” MacKay said. “O.C. (Ethan O’Connor) and I saw an opportunity on a slow change and a loose ball. O.C. made a decision to give up to me, and we found a way to get a two-on-one.”
Suitably inspired, the Bandits’ offense took off from there. Buffalo received goals from Kevin Buchanan, Tehoka Nanticoke (twice) and Byrne (twice). When the third quarter was over, the Bandits were ahead by 12-10 and could exhale. Some different people scored in the fourth quarter – Dhane Smith, Kevin Brownell, Chris Cloutier and Chase Fraser. Connor Fields had scored earlier in the game, so that means nine different players scored on the day.
While it’s nice to have one player be an unstoppable force, it’s often better to have a balanced attack. If nothing else this season, the Bandits’ opponents never know who will do the scoring at a given moment … but someone is likely to do so.
“It’s a total trust,” Byrne said about the balanced attack. “As you long as you can sit there and look at a guy on the bench and trust that he’ll make the right play at the right time, it goes a long way. It feels like you don’t have to do too much, and stick to your strengths.”
Smith finished with a relatively quiet three goals and six assists, Byrne went 3-4-7, and MacKay had an impressive two goals and an assist. It’s all why the Bandits are leading the National Lacrosse League in goals per game.
Meanwhile, the defense tightened up nicely in the second half. Vinc finished the game with 54 saves on 65 shots for an .831 save percentage. It’s bad to forget the past when you can’t find your car keys, but it’s good when you don’t let a run by the other team affect you.
“In this game it’s hard to be great for 60 minutes,” Tavares said. “I thought for the majority of the game, Matt was a brick wall – and so was the defense. They have a great team over there, and a great offense. They know how to put the ball in the net, and they’ll get open.”
With this game in the book, the same two teams headed up to Toronto by bus for a flight to Halifax. It’s easy to wonder if they’ll be on the same plane – preferably in different parts of the cabin. Back-to-back games don’t come up often, and their infrequency can make it a test in a sport that usually plays once a week.
“Lots of this,” MacKay said while pointing to a bottle of fluids. “It’s very unique. … We try to stay responsible. We’re getting in pretty late with a quick turnaround. We’re kind of excited just being together. It’s only our second flight of the year.”
If Buffalo does well on Sunday, it will be good preparation for next weekend – when the team plays in Philadelphia on March 31 and in Colorado on April 2. The next home game is on April 9 against New York, which will have a rare 5 p.m. start.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)