by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
On January 13, the Buffalo Bandits appeared to be in trouble. They had just lost at home to the lowly Vancouver Stealth to fall to 2-3 on the young season. With three road games coming up for a team that had finished last overall a year before, it was easy to wonder what the future might hold.
What a difference a month (or so) can make.
The Bandits won their fourth game in a row on Saturday night. They emphatically knocked off the Georgia Swarm, 18-9, before 14,058 in the KeyBank Center. Buffalo reached the halfway point of the season with a clear lead in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division.
The Bandits have made a dramatic turnaround look almost casual.
“It’s never easy,” forward Callum Crawford said. “It’s hard work. That’s what we’re hanging our hats on. The only way to play is to come in feeling like we’re the underdogs, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
THE TURNING POINT
It’s easy to see where the season apparently turned around. On Jan. 19, Buffalo fell behind to Saskatchewan by 6-0 after a quarter, and trailed by seven goals in the third period. Yet the Bandits came back to win – on the Rush’s home floor no less, against a team that hasn’t lost another game this season.
“The Saskatchewan win was a character win for us,” Josh Byrne said. “It showed us that we could stick together and play as a team. It was kind of a turning point for us.”
Since then the Bandits won a close game in Rochester on Feb. 3. Then on Friday night, Buffalo won in New England – a game that was followed by an eight-hour bus ride back home for Saturday’s game. The team got some sleep along the way, but still should have had a limited amount of gas for another game within 24 hours.
Yet the Bandits looked like they were full of energy for almost all of the game over the Swarm in which they dominated more or less from start to finish.
“I’m too old for this,” the 33-year-old Crawford said. “I’m not a big fan of back-to-backs. But it gave me motivation for this game. We tried to do the little things right.”
HIGGINS SAVES THE DAY
Buffalo’s goaltender was the one member of the team that figured to be fresh on Saturday. Zach Higgins didn’t play against New England, as Alex Buque picked up the win there. Even so, Higgins’ performance was a revelation.
The Bandits weren’t perfect on defense in the game, no doubt partly because the Swarm has some talented offensive players. Yet so often, Higgins was there to shut the door when necessary. He made at least a dozen saves that could have been goals.
“He was the main reason for the win tonight,” coach Troy Cordingley said. “We had a lot of breakdowns. That’s the best I’ve ever seen him play. When it was close early on, he’d make some saves to give us confidence.”
Higgins had played for three different teams in three years before 2018. He was a free agent when the Bandits signed him as a free agent last month to replace the injured Dave DiRuscio.
“I’ve known Higgie for some time, and he’s got something to prove,” Crawford said. “He’s been in the game for a long time, and he’s motivated to play well.”
PRESENTING HIS CREDENTIALS
Higgins stopped 54 of 63 shots, playing like someone who wants to keep a job in the NLL. With expansion around the corner, it’s always good to make an impression on anyone who might be watching. If nothing else, the veteran’s performance gave the Bandits something to ponder when DiRuscio returns to health.
“It was pretty special,” Higgins said. “I got the call (to start) before the game today. I was pretty excited. I had to calm the nerves down a little bit. This is a long time coming, and I couldn’t wait to get the chance.”
Buffalo’s offense took over from there. Byrne and Crawford had three goals and three assists each, while Mitch Jones and Jordan Durston added seven points.
The Bandits have to take a week off now, as their next game doesn’t happen until Feb. 24 against Rochester.
“We’re taking it game by game,” Cordingley said. “We’re getting more buy-in, a 100 percent buy-in. When you have that, you have guys making sacrifices – playing time, points, whatever. Everyone is doing what they need to do.”