By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Bandits have had a relatively drama-free season in 2019. They had the best record in the National Lacrosse League at 14-4, and then sailed through the first two rounds of the playoffs to reach the finals. Buffalo never dropped two straight games in any point of the season.
But now, everything has changed. And so has the stress level from a Buffalo standpoint.
The Bandits dropped a 10-7 decision to the Calgary Roughnecks before 13,747 in the KeyBank Center on Saturday night. It’s only the first game of a best-of-three series. Even so, Buffalo lost its hard-earned home-field advantage, and now must win in Calgary next Saturday night just to keep its season alive.
In other words, the margin for error is gone.
“It was a playoff lacrosse game,” Bandits coach John Tavares said. “I thought we played hard. We just didn’t shoot the ball well. That’s probably why we didn’t score many goals.”
As indoor lacrosse games go, this was something of a chess match. Goals figured to be scarce entering the game, as both Buffalo’s Matt Vinc and Calgary’s Christian Del Bianco were playing extremely well in the earlier playoff games.
However, no one figured the goals would be so difficult to come by. The score was 1-1 after a period, and 2-2 after two periods. The defenses weren’t allowing much room for opposing offenses to operate, and the goalies were right in position on almost every shot.
“They were clogging the middle all the time, and there wasn’t much room,” Josh Byrne of the Bandits said.
“With a tie game at the half on the road, that’s right where we want to be,” said the Roughnecks’ Rhys Duch, who had both Calgary goals in the first half.
Finally, a run
It was more of the same in the third quarter. Shawn Evans gave Buffalo the lead for the last time early in the third period, and then the Roughnecks’ offensive stars finally got going. Calgary finished the period with three straight goals to take a 5-3 lead after 45 minutes, with stars Curtis Dickson and Dane Dobbie each scoring once.
After what had transpired for most of the game, a two-goal margin seemed almost insurmountable – or at least bigger than it actually was.
“They got a couple-goal run there and offensively we had to do a better job of scoring in bunches,” Corey Small said. “We didn’t really do that. We need better shots – maybe taking a second or half-second to pick a spot.”
“Putting in a couple in a row took some weight off our shoulders,” Duch said. “It’s the Buffalo Bandits. That’s a team that can score goals in bunches. We knew the lead wasn’t safe, but at least it let us take a deep breath.”
Then came an absolutely crucial moment in the contest. Early in the fourth quarter, Ethan O’Connor put the ball in the net from very close ranger. An official immediately waved off the goal, and Calgary took off the other way. Dobbie scored a transition goal apparently to make it a 6-3 game. But Buffalo threw the challenge flag on the O’Connor play, and the referee headed to take a long look at the video.
It was close, extremely close. It was virtually impossible to tell from the available camera angles as to whether O’Connor was touching the line. The official said the review was inconclusive, and the call stood. That meant the Dobbie goal – which would have been wiped out had O’Connor been given a goal – stood as well. So instead of Buffalo cutting the Calgary lead to 5-4, the Roughnecks led, 6-3.
“They called it in the crease,” Tavares said. “It was tough to see if he stepped in the crease before that. It was really tight. I agree that there probably wasn’t enough evidence to overturn it. I was just impressed by that call. That’s a really tight call to make. It’s a two-goal swing, it obviously was a turning point in the game.”
Rally falls short
Calgary scored a pair of goals within 45 seconds to go ahead by a 9-4 count; Dobbie has points on six of them (three and three). The way Del Bianco was going, it seemed unlikely that the Bandits could put enough on the scoreboard to catch up in the remaining 10 minutes. They got three goals back, but couldn’t finish off a comeback. Ex-Bandit Mitch Wilde wrapped things up with an empty-netter, and got knocked heavily into the boards by Ian MacKay after the play. Wilde was helped off the field; we’ll have to see if the play will be examined by the league for supplemental discipline.
Del Bianco finished with 48 saves on 55 shots. That translates into an .873 save percentage. Considering that anything above .800 is extraordinary, Del Bianco richly deserved his status as the game’s first star. Evans led the Bandits with five points and Byrne had four, but Dhane Smith was held to a goal and an assist.
If the Bandits are going to keep their season going, they are going to have to do better than that in terms of shooting percentage.
“We definitely have to adjust to how we are shooting the ball,” Tavares said. “We have to go to school on him, find out where he’s weak and try to stay away for what we did tonight. We hit a lot of bodies and rushed a lot of shots. Our shot selection was good, but I didn’t like where the ball was ending up.”
Just about any sports fan can recite the situation that the Bandits face now. Small knows what went wrong in the opener, and what’s at stake now.
“We obviously wanted to win this game,” he said. “We had a great crowd tonight that our backs, but we let one go. Fortunately for us, the way this playoff goes, it’s a best-of-three series. We have the opportunity to go home, watch some film, and get ready for the next game. We seemed to answer losses well this year, so we’ll have another opportunity to bounce back here.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)