By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s been a tough weekend at the KeyBank Center for the home teams.
On Friday night, the Buffalo Sabres couldn’t score a goal in a loss to the Boston Bruins. If that weren’t enough, they saw Jeff Skinner go down with an injury on Friday night. The team revealed on Saturday morning that the high-scoring forward would miss three to four weeks with an upper-body injury.
That set the tone for Saturday night, which might have been a more discouraging performance by the local team. The Buffalo Bandits couldn’t do much right for much of their game with the newly relocated Halifax Thunderbirds. Only a late burst of goals – four unanswered in the final five minutes – brought the final score to a more-respectable-than-it-was 15-10 loss. Needless to say, the 13,576 in the building didn’t have much more to cheer than their counterparts the night before.
“Those games are never fun,” Josh Byrne said. “They got shots and kept banging them in, while we were just a little bit off in this one.”
The Bandits had plenty of obstacles in their way on Saturday night. The schedule-maker didn’t do them any favors with three weeks between the opening game and No. 2.
“It felt like we fell out of the loop,” coach John Tavares said. “It was something like, do we still have a season? It felt like training camp all over again. (Halifax) looked like they were in better shape.”
Another pregame problem was the loss of Steve Priolo to injury. He had played in the previous 125 games, but a medical issue that was treated during the break apparently hadn’t healed enough to allow him to make it 126 in a row. You don’t take one of the league’s best defensemen out of the lineup without some pain.
“He’s the best. That’s the biggest loss we could have,” Dhane Smith said. “He’s our leader, our captain. Losing him really hurt us.”
The Bandits actually had a decent start. They opened the period with the first two goals, and ended it the same way to finish at 4-4 after 15 minutes.
However, the second period was a much different story. The Thunderbirds – who moved from Rochester to Nova Scotia in the offseason – scored all six goals in that period to take a 10-4 lead. It was one of the worst periods statistically in recent Bandit history; they’ve only been outscored by a larger margin three times in the past 14 years or so.
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Tavares said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, and Halifax shot the ball extremely well. They have a great offense, and they capitalized on their opportunities. It wasn’t a lack of effort. It was a lack of skill.”
The Thunderbirds quickly erased any thoughts of a comeback by scoring the first three goals of the second half, making it nine goals in a row and a 13-4 lead. The Bandits once gave up 11 straight in a game – Minnesota did it on April 6, 2013 – but this one made quite an impression on its own merits.
A couple of statistics jumped off the scoresheet. Halifax finished the game with a 22-7 record on faceoffs. That’s a lot of extra possessions, and Tavares gave the T-Birds’ Jake Withers plenty of credit for that.
“He’s one of the best in the world in faceoffs, and we don’t have a guy who can match his skill in the circle,” Tavares said. “We just didn’t want them to score off them.”
On the loose
Loose balls also were a problem. Halifax finished with a 104-73 advantage in that department. The coach thought that number was a little deceptive, but only a little.
“It’s definitely an area of concern,” Tavares said. “There’s no reason not to be in better shape. That (number) created a lot of second and third opportunities. We only had one possession. Of the 39, 15 came off faceoffs, so maybe that’s why the number was so drastic. It’s not like they got 39 more balls in the corner, but they definitely got some extra possessions.”
It was the third straight win by Halifax to start the season. The teams had a big rivalry when the Thunderbirds were back in Rochester. Some of the faces on the Halifax roster are new, but there was some emotion shared along the way Saturday. The Thunderbirds certainly looked like they took some delight in delivering such a big win here. Then again, three of their coaches – head coach Mike Accursi and assistants Chad Culp and Billy Dee Smith – are ex-Bandits who are used to winning in this city.
“They did a great job of rebuilding, but they still have the same core group,” Dhane Smith said. “So it felt like that same rivalry. I think it’s going to be chippy between us this season.”
Smith and Byrne finished with five points each, while Chris Cloutier had four. Mike Burke led the T-Birds with two goals and six assists, while ex-Bandit Ryan Benesch had six points and three other Halifax players added five.
Maybe it’s lucky that the KeyBank Center will be vacant on Sunday after what already happened this weekend. The Bandits will have to wait until 2020 to play again, and they’ll have an extra week to cure the problems that came up in this loss. Buffalo will play in Georgia on Jan. 11.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)