By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and the Buffalo Bandits didn’t waste that opportunity Friday night.
The Bandits, who suffered through a dismal 2016-17 season, started on the road back from their place at the bottom of the overall National Lacrosse League standings. They earned a 13-9 win over the Toronto Rock before 11,516 in the KeyBank Center.
It certainly felt at times like the Bandits had turned the page on all of that disappointment, and took advantage of the fresh start that a new season offers.
“We had a lot of energy tonight,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said. “It’s good to see. We didn’t see much of it last year. The guys were hungry and they played hard. We made things difficult for them.”
“Anytime you can get a win early in the season, it’s great,” Dhane Smith said.
NEW FACES THRIVE
The reasons for season-opening optimism were many. Smith, who was bothered by injuries for much of last season, looked to be his old former MVP self on Friday. He had a quiet seven points, with a goal and six assists. Smith was content to draw attention from opposing defenders and set up others.
As a result, 10 different Bandit players scored goals, and two more had assists.
“We had so many threats,” Smith said. “There are so many guys that can put the ball in the net.”
One of them received the close scrutiny that comes with being the first overall pick in September’s draft. Josh Byrne finished with five points, second only to Smith on the team. Byrne’s first goal was unexpected to everyone, especially him, as he came out from behind then net. Byrne stumbled and threw the ball on goal with his back almost to the net. Score.
“Life is great,” Byrne said with a big smile afterwards. “That was the biggest fluke goal of my life. But I’ll take it.”
Some other new faces did well on offense. Jordan Durston, picked up from Vancouver in the offseason, had a goal and three assists. Callum Crawford had two goals and two assists in his Bandits’ debut.
The most important newcomer, though, spent his time at the other end of the field from the Buffalo scorers. Alex Buque won the starting goaltender job during training camp. It’s very early in the season, naturally, but Buque looks like he has a chance to keep the job for some time.
The 25-year-old made some good saves in the early going that allowed the Bandits to jump out to a 3-0 lead. That was important for Buffalo to establish some early momentum. Then when the game was up for grabs (6-6 late in the third period), Buque and the defense turned it up a couple of notches as the Bandits closed on a 7-3 run.
The new goalie, who was acquired from Colorado, finished with 55 saves on 64 shots. That is a save percentage of 85.9 percent; anything above 80 is excellent.
“Whenever we broke down, Alex was like a wall back there,” Cordingley said.
About the only complaint Cordingley had about Game One was the fact that the team won’t play its second game for a couple of weeks. The NLL has spread out its schedule this season, which will cut down on the back-to-back games but will add bye weeks.
“We’d love to go right back at it,” he said. “But we’ll have two or three practices, watch some video and try to correct our mistakes.”
Buffalo plays in Rochester on Dec. 23. The next home game is on Jan. 6 against Calgary.