By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Now that several weeks have gone by in the National Lacrosse League’s schedule, the race for the top spot in the East Division is starting to take shape.
Toronto, Georgia and Buffalo are looking like playoff teams and contenders for the division title at this point. Meanwhile, the teams that will battle for the last of four playoff spots appear to be New England, Rochester, and Philadelphia. (Notice: This is all subject to change in the weeks ahead, so use pencil instead of pen.)
Still, the Bandits have accomplished their first goal for the young season by going 6-2 in their first eight games to stay close to the Rock (6-1) and Swarm (7-2). Buffalo played five of those games at home, and won four of them. The latest game was Saturday night at the KeyBank Center, where the team knocked off Colorado, 15-12, before 10,766.
This was an unusual night for the Bandits, who never could quite put the Mammoth away in spite of Colorado’s 1-4 record entering the game. Buffalo never trailed, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some anxious moments for co-coach Rich Kilgour during the contest.
“It was a game of runs tonight,” he said. “It was back and forth. We could never kick them and make them stay down. Hats off to them, they kept coming back, and hats us off to us, we kept coming back. We told the boys, I’d rather take an ugly ‘W’ than a pretty ‘L.’ It’s two points in the bank, and that was the goal.”
Dhane Smith had another big game on offense. He followed up an 11-point night against New England with three goals and five assists against the Mammoth. When Smith is playing like a former NLL Most Valuable Player, which he is, he makes the offense go.
“It makes them focus on him, and that makes other guys get a step. And we say, one step in this league is a big deal,” Kilgour said.
“I struggled at first, but the points are going to come,” Smith added. “We’re not looking for me to shoot. It’s not how it used to be. Everyone is working with each other, and we’re getting great shots. It’s different, and it’s fun.”
Shawn Evans, another former MVP, chipped in with three goals. There were several other contributors to the offense, but the most obvious was Chase Fraser, who had three goals on four shots. Fraser also won 12 of 16 faceoffs, so he had a huge impact in the contest. He’s been one of the big surprises for Buffalo so far this season.
“It’s a case of getting used to playing with the guys,” Fraser said. “It took a lot longer than I wanted to, but I’m starting to get back into the groove I had when I was younger. That’s going to help us. “
Fraser and Matt Gilray might have had the two biggest goals in the game. They came in the final 18 seconds of the third period, turning an 11-9 Buffalo lead into a much more comfortable 13-9 margin. The Mammoth never got closer than two goals after that.
“Those are awesome goals that set you up,” Smith said. “It was huge for our team.”
But consider the list of the other goal scorers for the Bandits: Mitch de Snoo, Nick Weiss, Ethan O’Connor, and Jordan Dunston. That sort of depth has helped Buffalo lead the league in scoring, as it averaging a little more than 14 goals per game.
Speaking of good offenses, Georgia has one of those too. The Swarm will host the Bandits next Saturday night outside of Atlanta in the first matchup between the teams this season. It’s only February, but that matchup should get everyone’s attention.
*This was the annual “Tucker Out Lymphoma Night,” a tribute to the late son of ex-Bandit Shawn Williams. It’s always a special game for Dhane Smith. “It means a ton,” he said. “I got to see Tucker when he was younger. I’m starting to understand what was going on, and telling the guys what happened. There’s going to be emotions out there. We had to keep them in check, and we did a good job out of that.”
*The size of the crowds at Bandits’ game this season has to be cause for a bit of concern. The average attendance for the season is now 11,226. It’s the lowest such number for the team since 2005, when the average ended up at 10,288. Yes, there is time to raise this year’s average, and certainly the snowstorm two weeks ago didn’t help matters. But it’s unusual to see the Bandits rank fifth in the league in average attendance; they dropped below Philadelphia after Saturday night. You’d have to think the playoff misses in the last two seasons and the early start to the season (the team usually draws better later in the year) have had an effect.
*Forward Josh Byrne missed another game on Saturday. Kilgour said the team is waiting to get the doctor’s approval before starting to work him back into duty.
*It’s starting to look like Mark Steenhuis may have played his last game as a Buffalo Bandit. Steenhuis has been on injured reserve since the start of the season. Kilgour deferred questions about Steenhuis to general manager Steve Dietrich, but did say there has been no sign of Steenhuis at practice at any point this season. There was talk in training camp that Steenhuis, one of the Bandits’ top all-time scorers, might have trouble making the team this season at age 38 because of a crowded roster.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)