By Budd Bailey
Start with the basics.
The Buffalo Bandits made it six wins in a row to start the season on Saturday night. They defeated the Rochester Knighthawks, 11-8, before an announced attendance of 9,371 in the KeyBank Center.
Then let’s add a little perspective.
It’s only the third time that the Bandits have ever won their first six games in a season. The other two times came in 1993 and 1996, and Buffalo went on to win championships in both of those years.
All right, no one is calling banner manufacturers to submit bids on a new bit of cloth for the rafters at the KeyBank Center at the end of the season. But it’s been an excellent start to what could be – could be – a special season.
“It’s been going well,” defender Steve Priolo said. “I think the mentality in the locker room is that we’re broken the season into thirds, and we’re going to be 0-0 going forward. That’s the type of mentality we have to have in order to keep playing.”
“We’ve had some good teams in the past, but it’s fun to be a part of it,” Dhane Smith added.
John Tavares is the only common denominator between those two great teams of the past when he was a player, and the team he is guiding now as a coach. Tavares probably would need to study some old films in order to make a large comparison between the three teams, but he can see some similarities.
“Without thinking about it much, they had a balanced attack, good goalie, good defense,” he said about those championship squads. “Usually good teams win in different ways. They can win tight games, 18-17 games, 9-8.”
It took the Bandits less than 20 minutes to take control of this game. Buffalo scored the game’s first four goals to take a good-sized lead in less than nine minutes. Smith had a hat trick before the first quarter was over, and Tehoka Nanticoke added a goal to start the second period. Nanticoke, a rookie, has had the luxury of working his way into the offense at a relatively leisurely pace. But he is getting the hang of the pro game as he gains experience.
“Tehoka is a smart lacrosse player – very strong, very creative,” Tavares said. “He’s brought another threat to score for us. He can pass, shoot from the outside – just about everything. He’s just starting to feel comfortable. … He wants to fit in, and that’s been a pleasure to watch. He wants to be a team player.”
At the other end, Matt Vinc was stopping everything in sight, as usual. The defense is confident that the veteran will make saves whenever he gets a good look at the ball, and the players in front of him have been doing that a lot this season.
“It gives huge confidence to our defense,” Priolo said about Vinc’s play. “Matt doesn’t mind seeing shots. He just wants to see them from certain spots on the floor. That is our job as defensemen. When you give Matt the shots that he wants, he’s mostly likely going to save them. The more he saves, the better he gets later in the game. It’s such a pleasure to be around the guy.”
Rochester finally got some offense going in the second quarter, getting three goals to close within 7-4 at the half. Ex-Bandit Shawn Evans had two of those goals, which brought his career total to 451 – ninth on the all-time list as he passed Geoff Snider. Buffalo regained control with a good third period (outscoring the Knighthawks, 3-0) to go ahead, 10-4. The period also featured a couple of physical incidents that resulted in some penalties. It all left Tavares quite animated.
“I was a little frustrated with the rules,” he said. “When we were in New York, there was a play that happened in my opinion that should have been no goal. It was when Jeff Teat scored and they had a penalty on the pick. To me, the play stops. The whistle has to go before the ball goes in the net. If that’s the rule, we have to look at changing that rule. Today, Connor (Fields) goes in and it looks like he scored a goal and then hit the goalie. But there was a penalty, and I didn’t know if was a goal or no goal. So I didn’t know whether to challenge the play. It was decided that it was no goal, so I threw the (challenge) flag. If I can’t explain the rules as a coach, it’s a bit embarrassing.
“In New York, the penalty came before the goal, but the goal counted. Here, the penalty came after the goal, and the goal didn’t count. So what’s the call?”
For whatever reason, the Bandits seemed to take their foot off the gas at the start of the fourth quarter. Rochester scored four straight goals to cut the margin to 10-8, and Bandit fans must have had flashbacks to last week’s sudden collapse on Long Island. Buffalo had to make a late comeback to pull out the overtime victory then.
But this time, Josh Byrne stepped up to score a goal to break the Knighthawks’ run, and Buffalo ran out the clock from there. On a team that has plenty of weapons, it seems like Smith and Byrne have the knack of stepping up when the team needs a big goal.
“We pride ourselves on having the ball a lot and take over games,” Smith said. “We’re all capable of doing that. We’ve been the ‘the guy’ growing up. Josh had that big goal, the 11th, to stop their momentum. That might have been the biggest goal of the night.”
It’s been an odd first third of the season for the Bandits in a scheduling sense. Buffalo has played all of its game in the state of New York. One scheduled game in Halifax was postponed.
But that changes next week. Buffalo will be playing the Toronto Rock in its new home in Hamilton. The odd part is that no fans will be allowed at the game because of Covid-19 restrictions. Not only will that reduce the Rock’s home-field advantage, it also will create a unique atmosphere for the game.
“It’s interesting,” Priolo said. “We’ve played scrimmages in front of no fans. It’s nice when the music is going and it gives you energy, so this is going to be different. It will be interesting to see how much talking there will be on the field. I saw a feature on TV, and it was amazing how much talking went on. There’s a lot of communicating going on while playing defense. People (watching on TV) might get an idea about what goes on out there.”
Buffalo returns home to the Key Bank Center on February 18 to play Albany.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)