By Budd Bailey
Dhane Smith of the Buffalo Bandits had no idea how he’d feel when his team faced the Toronto Rock in the KeyBank Center on Sunday night.
All of Buffalo – some, of course, far more than others – was hurting after the shocking mass killing of 10 people on Saturday afternoon. It’s the type of event that no one will ever completely understand, and thus it will be difficult to gain any sort of closure from the incident.
“Just hearing about it – it didn’t hit me until (Sunday),” he said. “To see everything on social media, seeing faces of those who passed away, hit me hard.”
But the Bandits still had to open their playoff series. They are professionals, and that’s what pros do.
And they produced one of the most memorable games in the history of the franchise. Buffalo defeated Toronto, 18-17, in a contest that was jammed with emotion and excitement from start to finish. The Bandits took a one-game lead in the best-of three series.
For Smith, this one was personal. There aren’t many persons of color in lacrosse, and he’s been an eloquent spokesman about increasing diversity in the game. That continued on Sunday night, as Smith and coach John Tavares gave pregame speeches about the situation to the team.
“I’m not the type of guy to talk too much,” Smith said. “I’m a shy guy, and I don’t like to talk about my feelings. I did get emotional before the game regarding what happened (Saturday) in Buffalo. It’s tough for everyone in Buffalo and the world in general. Basically, my story was that I play lacrosse because I love it, and I want to show kids of color that they can play at the top of the level and be a pro.”
Leading the way
Smith responded with a spectacular night – three goals and seven assists. But Josh Byrne was one better, going for four goals and seven assists. He scored the goal that put the Bandits ahead for good with nine and one-half minutes left in regulation time. The game had plenty of meaning for Byrne as well.
“It was extremely emotional for all of us – especially myself, being half-black from Trinidad/Tobago,” he said. “To see such a hate crime in our backyard, it was very upsetting. It was a shock as to what the real world is really like. That’s just pure hatred, and that’s what we’re fighting for – for the world to understand that and see what black people deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard and it’s scary.”
Add it up, and you get 21 points from the two Bandits who set an NLL record this year for most points by a pair of teammates. Those are the people you want to step up at this time of the year. But they had help. Chris Cloutier had three goals, and Chase Fraser and Connor Fields had two each. In fact, almost everyone was superb on offense. And all of that came without the benefit of a single power play; Toronto only had the man-advantage once.
“With everything that happened, it was tough to live in the moment,” Byrne said. “As those goals were happening, you felt blinded in a way.”
Yet, the game was a thriller throughout the night – one that could be used to show people how fabulous the sport can be when it is played at the highest level. Every time one team seemed to be gaining an edge, the other would come roaring back. It was almost as if the Bandits couldn’t sustain an incredibly high level of energy for more than a few minutes – no team could – and Toronto would capitalize on that drop to come back.
Let’s see – Buffalo jumped ahead, 5-2, in the first period, and probably could/should have been ahead by more. Instead,, Toronto answered with five straight goals. The Bandits scored five of their own to have a 10-7 lead just before halftime, and was up by 12-8 with 5:18 gone in the third period. But the Rock scored the next six goals to go up, 14-12, with 2:38 gone in the fourth quarter. Just as it started to look grim for the home team, Buffalo scored five straight goals to lead by 17-14 with 7:47 left.
“It was a game of runs; it was a roller-coaster game,” Tavares said.
A half-inch from tied
Still, it wasn’t over. Toronto closed to within 17-16 with 2:49 left, and even Smith’s insurance goal couldn’t wrap matters up. The Rock’s Justin Scott scored with about nine seconds left to reduce the lead to one. Buffalo’s sports fans know that playoff games can be decided in the final seconds – ahem – and watched with some degree of dread when Toronto won the faceoff.
Rob Hellyer got the shot the Rock wanted – open from the left side – but it hit the goal post and bounced into the far corner. That’s when time ran out, and that’s when Banditland could let out its biggest and last cheer of the night.
The Rock had its own long list of contributors on the night. Tom Schreiber had eight points, Dan Craig had six, and Zach Manna had four goals. It was impressive that Toronto could raise its level of play to match Buffalo’s performance under this set of unique circumstances.
But it wasn’t just the number of goals that make the game so special. The quality of the goals was stunning. Keep in mind that these were two of the best goalies in the league this season. Either Matt Vinc of the Bandits or Nick Rose of the Rock should be the league’s goaltender of the year this season. They were no match for the offenses on this night.
“It’s hard to play in goal. These guys are very, very accurate,” Tavares said. “They can pick the smallest corner from any part of the field. When you see that ball go in the net, it’s usually not the goalie’s fault. I look back at 17 goals against, and they were all good shots. Maybe Matty would like one or two back.”
Yes, the game has repercussions in the playoff situation. Buffalo held serve in the first game of the season, and needs one more win to advance to the NLL Finals. It could come next weekend in Hamilton, or it could come the following week back at the KeyBank Center.
All of that, though, took a back seat to the circumstances surrounding the game. Sometimes sports are a diversion from everyday life, a shot of therapy that’s needed even if it doesn’t represent any sort of cure. The 10,258 who left the building happily if momentarily distracted probably thought so.
“We wanted to win for the City of Buffalo,” Smith said. “If we could put a smile on their faces, it meant a lot.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
Good luck Bandits. Wish we were there for the game. Kiss Bandit and friend