By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Chase Fraser had a big night in leading the Buffalo Bandits to a 10-8 win over the Toronto Rock on Saturday night. The forward finished with three goals and two assists to lead all Buffalo scorers.
Imagine what he could do if he felt better.
“He was throwing up this morning,” teammate Josh Byrne said about Fraser. “Think about that for a second. He’s sick and he came up with a performance like that. He’s the heart and soul of this team.”
It was the second straight hat trick for Fraser since returning from an injury. That’s a huge sign for a Bandit team that had to readjust its offense this season from the squad that reached the finals in 2019.
Buffalo lost Shawn Evans and Jordan Durston in the expansion draft, and then were hit by injuries to Thomas Hoggarth and Ethan O’Connor. But as the saying goes, as one door closes, another one opens.
“I knew coming in from last year, we didn’t end the season the way we wanted,” Fraser said. “Personally, I wanted to fill a bigger role, do more for myself and to help this team out. I’m doing all I possibly can to help us be victorious.”
All of Fraser’s goals were important in a tight battle between divisional rivals. But it was his second score that probably will wind up as the prettiest goal of the week in the entire league.
Fraser had the ball close to the Toronto net, as he stood to the right of goaltender Nick Rose. As Fraser started to slide across the street, he let go a subtle, low shot with his backhand. No one, including Rose, was expecting it, and it went straight into the net. It took a second of recognition, and then the crowd of 12,026 exploded.
“I came around and threw it, and I looked at him,” Fraser said. “Nobody was doing anything. Nobody knew where the ball was. He was just standing there looking at me, and I was like, ‘Probably by him. There you go.’ It was one of those things.”
Taking a look around
And the 24-year-old even took a moment to listen to the reaction.
“I soaked in the noise,” he said. “It’s the first time in several months that I’ve played back in Banditland this season. Got to enjoy it, got to get the crowd back into it.”
Fraser had some help. Josh Byrne picked up three goals of his own. One of them came on a penalty shot in the third period, which came after he was checked from behind while on a breakaway.
“It was my first one,” Byrne said. “I knew exactly what I was doing too. (The goalie) got a lot of it, and I thought it missed – I’m not going to lie. Then then the ref put his hands up.”
Chris Cloutier deserves some credit too. He came through when needed, as he scored with 5:29 left in the fourth quarter to break an 8-8 tie and provide the game-winning goal.
The assist on Cloutier’s score went to Garrett Billings, who was signed as a free agent earlier in the week. Billings was rushed right into the lineup without a great deal of practice time.
“It was a long time in the works,” he said. “I had some family issues that were the reason I wasn’t going to play this year. But then there was a change very recently in early December. … The big reason I wanted to come here was that the roster they had assembled was such a talented group. I thought I could contribute.
“I would always tell people that the place to watch a game in the NLL was Buffalo. I used to love coming down here with Toronto. It was such a battle and such a great rivalry. People remember those brawls that we had. We’d run into each other all the time in the playoffs. It’s fun being on the other side. We took a chunk of flesh out of them today, and I’m sure we’ll run into them again.”
No margin for error
This was a back-and-forth game over the course of 60 minutes. The Rock jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first period, but the Bandits scored five straight goals on their way to leading, 7-5, at halftime.
The key moment of the contest might have come in the middle of the third period. The Rock had seven minutes of power-play time but did not score. In fact, Byrne’s penalty shot goal came only 26 seconds after the last power play expired. Toronto went 0 for 4 with the man-advantage.
“It’s like we were plus-one after being short for seven minutes. That’s a huge swing for us,” coach John Tavares of the Bandits said. “As you saw, we needed every goal.”
By January standards, this was a big game for the Bandits. Halifax has jumped out to a 5-0 start, and the win pushed Buffalo to 3-1 with Toronto sinking to 3-2. Only the first two spots in the division are guaranteed playoff spots, so any chance to gain ground on divisional rivals – like this one – is important.
“Going into this game we were 0-1 in the division,” Tavares said. “To make the playoffs, I don’t want to take a chance on a wild-card spot. You want to be in the top two, so you need to win division games. That was the message going in today.”
The Bandits hit the road next week for a game in Colorado on Jan. 25. Rochester comes to town on Jan. 31.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)