By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
You can’t keep a good team down forever.
And the Buffalo Bandits certainly qualify as a good team right now.
The Bandits faced a lot of adversity during Saturday night’s game with the Calgary Roughnecks at the KeyBank Center. Calgary scored the first couple of goals of the game, and always seemed to have an answer when Buffalo crept back in the game.
Then the fourth quarter came along, and the Roughnecks ran out of answers. Buffalo had a 4-1 edge in the final 15 minutes to take a 12-10 win before 13, 085, the largest home crowd of the season.
“Those ones are going to count,” Dhane Smith said. “Our offense was not very good tonight. Luckily our defense and transition games were unbelievable. Good teams will figure it out.”
It was an intense well-played contest that came down to the final seven minutes. With the score tied at 10-10, Smith did what star players do – score the goal that put the Bandits ahead for good.
Ethan O’Connor added some insurance with 2:06 to go, and Buffalo was assured of moving to 8-2 on the young season. For a team that was 8-10 for all of the 2017-18 season, that’s a good sign of progress.
For quite a while, Calgary looked like it was poised to spoil Buffalo’s excellent start to the season. The Roughnecks have some top scorers in Curtis Dickson, Rhys Duch and Dane Dobbie, and they combined for eight goals. The Roughnecks did a lot in a first half that had plenty of scoring on both sides, thanks in part to a bunch of penalties that loosened the game up considerably.
Meanwhile, Buffalo’s offense had to be spread out a bit. The team’s offensive leaders, who were electric a week ago against Georgia, couldn’t get much going this time.
“They have a great defense,” Smith said. “They kept shots to the outside. We took those and we weren’t burying them.”
“Sometimes guys get complacent, and forget what it takes to get to the net and create opportunities,” co-coach John Tavares said. “I thought we were very stagnant, not getting to the middle. And we gave up the ball, made some silly turnovers.”
One of the few guys who seemed to have a touch for the Bandits early was defenseman Steve Priolo. He finished with two goals for the second straight game, prompting facetious questions about whether he’s ready to become a full-time forward soon.
“It’s just the league’s changing,” Priolo said. “You have to roll with it. I’ve kind of liked getting rid of the off-ball slashes and the dirty stuff. It’s keeping it to hard, physical play.”
Buffalo earned its first lead of the night at 10-9 on a goal by a player in his first game as a Bandit. Chris Cloutier had been acquired more than a week ago from Philadelphia, and the rookie (second overall draft choice) scored from long range.
“It was awesome,” Cloutier said about his debut in the KeyBank Center. “Growing up, I always came here for Bandits game. My friends said before the draft, if you have your choice, where would you like to go? I said, Buffalo. Now, it’s a lucky thing for me that I ended up here. I’m pumped to be here. With the leadership on this team, I’m going to learn a lot.”
Then Smith and O’Connor did their jobs, and Buffalo was a winner. Credit for the victory belongs on the defensive side as well. After a so-so first half, the unit shut down the Roughnecks by allowing only two goals in the final 30 minutes.
“We literally were like, ‘We shouldn’t even be in this game and we are, so let’s take advantage of it,’” Priolo said. “I’m so proud of these guys, so happy to be on a team that can dig deep and find ways to win.”
As could be guessed, goalie Matt Vinc was terrific in the second half. He had several excellent saves, and even made some tough plays look routine. Goaltending is one of the team’s biggest areas of improvement from last year.
“You know you’re in every game with ‘Vino’ in the net,” Priolo said
“He’s very composed, and he’s the one who kept us in the game,” Tavares added. “He gave us the opportunity to come back, and that’s what great goaltending does for you. It makes the defense look really good, and the defense was strong.”
The Bandits only have three home games left on the schedule, with five slated on the road. Buffalo won’t be back in town until March 9. The team will be in Rochester on Friday night. Smith believes the games are about to become a bit more serious as the second half continues.
“We love playing in front of our fans, but we think our fans travel well,” Smith said. “We’re improving each game, and we’re excited.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)