By Budd Bailey
There were so many questions about the Buffalo Bandits as they took the field for their first game in 644 days on Saturday night at the KeyBank Center.
Would they be any good? Would the new players be a good fit? Did the layoff hurt veteran goalie Matt Vinc? Would people still show up to watch?
Some of those questions will take quite a while to answer, of course. But, all things considered, the early returns were quite promising. The Bandits took a 16-9 decision from the Calgary Roughnecks, and they looked pretty good doing it. The best part of it was easy to diagnose: the third quarter.
With the score tied, 7-7, Buffalo played an almost perfect period. They outscored Calgary, 7-0, in those 15 minutes. Records only go back to 2006, but the Bandits had not had a 7-0 period in the more than 21 years that the statistics cover. Those 15 minutes were the clear difference in the game.
On those seven goals, Josh Byrne and Connor Fields had two goals each, while Tehoka Nanticoke, Chase Fraser and Dhane Smith had one each. When five guys are scoring, it’s tough to stop one without the rest of the offense coming through.
“I think this is the most talented offense we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “It makes it easy, giving them the ball. It’s hard to cover us. Everyone is unselfish and gets their shots.”
The outburst was a little unexpected, considering the way the first half went. Neither team had more than a one-goal lead in the first 25 minutes of play. Then the Bandits went up by 7-5, but the Roughnecks answered to tie the game at the half. It had been a long time since either team played under true game conditions, and neither side looked particularly comfortable.
“We haven’t played in almost two years,” Tavares said. “We were OK but we weren’t being smart in the first half. We gave them a lot of transitional opportunities.”
From there, the Bandits were never really threatened down the stretch. Smith finished with nine points, while Byrne had four goals and three assists. While they were expecting the old favorites like Smith and Byrne to be leaders. It was the new faces that were particularly pleasing.
Western New Yorker Connor Fields broke in with the Bandits with four goals and an assist. He couldn’t have written a better script for his first game in a Buffalo uniform.
“It was my dream growing up to be part of the Bandits,” he said. “I came to all these games as a kid. It was really special being out there. To get a win in front of those fans, there’s nothing better than that.”
Tehoka Nanticoke was advertised as a big, strong forward with a scoring touch, and he had a hat trick in his first NLL game. Whether it’s Game One or Game Eighteen, Buffalo figures to be good this season when everyone in scoring.
“I didn’t have any expectations about them (Fields and Nanticoke) going in,” Tavares said. “But all of our offensive guys are a threat. We’re going to have different nights where different players score three or four goals. Was I surprised? No, because they are great lacrosse players. They can score when they get the opposition.”
Veteran Kyle Buchanan also looked like a good fit, helping in a variety of roles. He finished with four assists and seven loose balls.
“I think he’s going to do that every night,” Tavares said. “He’s a great goal scorer, and you’ll see a bit more offense from him. He was advertised but he has the potential to score even more.”
Then there’s the case of Vinc, the goalie who is a future National Lacrosse League Hall of Famer but who is still 39 years old. It’s easy to wonder about how someone that age might react to not playing a game in 20 months. But he finished with 49 saves on 58 shots according to unofficial statistics. That’s a young man’s night on the floor.
“Fortunately I had a game in exhibition, but it’s a totally different atmosphere at home,” Vinc said. “I’ve been here a few times for opening day, but I was anxious to get started. Early on, it was good to get some shots. … It was a good rest (during the layoff), but also you want to get back out there.”
“Having two years off is either going to help players or hurt them,” Tavares said. “If you work out, train, take care of your body, like Matt does, that’s going to add to your career. If you don’t train as much, it’s going to slow you down a bit.”
The Bandits therefore are 1-0, which is right on schedule. But coaches are never satisfied.
“I think we can improve some things, and the other teams are going to improve as well,” he said. “That game (with Calgary) is over with.”
As for the crowd, the attendance was never announced during the game, and there was no sign of it on the NLL’s statistical recap of the game. The 300 level had a handful of people around the center, and that was it. The lower levels were better attended, but there was some serious social distancing going on between fans. It’s always difficult to guess attendance numbers, but a five-figure crowd in terms of actual attendance (as opposed to tickets sold) seemed very unlikely.
Admittedly, the Bandits have had trouble drawing people in December in the past, and there is a pandemic going on. But attendance is something to watch going forward throughout the league. The NLL obviously isn’t first in line for attention from most sports fans, and it has been a long lay-off. The people that did show up for the opener were enthusiastic. We’ll have to see if others follow.
In the meantime, the fans of Banditland don’t have to wait another 20 months for another game. The team will be in Rochester on Saturday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)