By Budd Bailey
That noted boxer, philosopher, and lacrosse expert Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Providing the punch, at least figuratively speaking, in Saturday night’s indoor lacrosse game between the Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks was Ian MacKay. The Bandits’ transition player had the biggest goal of the night in his team’s 20-8 win at the KeyBank Center. The victory pushed the team into the East finals next week against the Toronto Rock.
Buffalo had a 9-6 lead in a game in which the home team never trailed but its leads in the first 39 minutes were never completely comfortable. Then MacKay took charge. He picked off a pass at the defense, and used his speed to get a couple of steps ahead of the pursuing defenders. MacKay beat goalie Rylan Hartley to put Buffalo ahead by four goals. The building more or less exploded with noise from the 14,794 in the building, perhaps because the play was such an obvious turning point in the game. This would not be Rochester’s night.
“I thought he was one of our best if not the best player today,” coach John Tavares said about MacKay. “He played 200 feet – played defense, was on the power play, great on five-on-five. We definitely want to get transition opportunities, and Mickey created some. When we ask him to play offense, he’s played great. When we ask him to play defense, he’s played great.”
If MacKay provided the initial punch, the rest of the Bandits got in line to throw a follow-up combination of blows. Steve Priolo almost exactly duplicated MacKay’s play 38 seconds later. Kyle Buchanan scored another 18 seconds later, making it three goals in 56 seconds. Josh Byrne made it 13-6 slightly less than a minute later, so it was four goals in a minute and 53 seconds. It was up, up and away from there, as the Bandits put on their best offensive performance of the season.
“I know we’re capable of doing great things on the offensive end, especially after getting us gelling in Albany,” Matt Vinc said. “But that team played us tough twice. Winner-take-all, you never know what to expect.”
“We’re having fun,” Dhane Smith said. “We’re hitting our stride at the right moment. That was big for our confidence.”
This looked like the Bandits’ offense that everyone had expected from the start of the season. Injuries were the biggest problem along the way, but the key performers are back. They had tuned up in last week’s season finale in Albany.
“With the chemistry building and the confidence growing and the ball going in, it makes a big difference to have everyone back,” Tavares said. “When you have to worry about five guys, it’s a lot more dangerous. Everybody was shooting the ball.”
The numbers tell the story quite well. The 12-goal margin of victory was the largest in Bandits’ history, breaking the record set in 2004 at Toronto. It was a goal short of tying the league record. The 20 goals fell just short of the team record for goals in a playoff game; that stays at 22 – which came in the team’s first-ever playoff game in 1992.
Individually, the list of heroes seemed endless. Dhane Smith had three goals (all when the game was up for grabs) and seven assists. Byrne had four goals and six assists. Chris Cloutier and Kyle Buchanan had hat tricks.
Don’t forget about the defense at the other end, either. Vinc was brilliant in the first period, stopping all 15 shots by the Knighthawks. If a couple of those had gone in, it might have been a different game. Vinc went on to stop 44 of 51 shots over the course of almost 54 minutes of play, when Tavares gave him the rest of the night off. Any save percentage in a game above .800 is quite good, and Vinc’s number for Saturday’s work was .863 – which ranks fourth on the Bandits’ list in playoff games since 2005.
“We go from a good team to a great team (when Vinc plays well),” Smith said. “I don’t know why he mentions retirement. He’s still the greatest ever to do it.”
“He gives everyone a lot more confidence when he’s back there,” Tavares said. “He’s definitely the backbone for our team. When he plays like that, the guys can take a few more risks.”
What’s more, the Buffalo defense did a superb job of keeping Rochester’s top scorer (and ex-Bandit) Connor Fields from having an outsized influence on the game. Fields was held to a goal and four assists. Holden Cattoni was the only Knighthawks to have more than one goal; he had four, including a natural hat trick in the second quarter.
“That (stopping Fields) was our focus,” Vinc said. “He’s had an unbelievable season. We had to follow him all over the floor. We had a couple of tasks there, and our whole left-side defense played really well. You have to shut down guys like that. We’re going to have a couple of others coming up. We knew he’d get looks, and we wanted to limit his time and space.”
With Rochester out of the way, the playoffs turn very interesting. The Bandits and Rock have been the best teams in the East for much of the season. Now they face each other in a best-of-three series to determine which team will go to the NLL Finals.
“We expected them to be the team to beat,” Smith said. “To win it all, you have to beat the best teams. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The series comes with a twist. A concert has been booked for Saturday, May 13 in the KeyBank Center. Game One, therefore, will be played on Friday, May 12. The surprise comes with Game Two slated for the next day in Hamilton. Game Three, if necessary, will be played in Buffalo on Saturday, May 20.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)