By Budd Bailey

By the end of Friday night, the Buffalo Bandits had shown they were just like the rest of us. They had been sitting around for much of the past week, waiting for the Blizzard of ’22 to subside, so they could get back to work. Once they did, they found joy in what is usually routine.

“I was in Buffalo downtown – I live there right now – and I decided to drive to Hamburg at 9:30 in the morning (on Dec. 23),” Dhane Smith said. “That wasn’t very smart of me. It took a long, long time, but I made it safely.”

Smith was like the rest of his teammates in that he didn’t have any great problems that were related to the epic storm. Still, they were happy to run around the KeyBank Center on Friday night after several days of enforced idleness. A very good crowd turned out to watch as well.

“It was between Christmas and New Year’s, and it gave them a reason to get out and enjoy the game,” coach John Tavares said. “That was a fun game to watch.”

Even better, the Bandits were just as successful on Friday night as their cousins in Pegulaville, the Sabres, were on Thursday night in a win over Detroit. Buffalo earned an exciting 18-13 win over the Halifax Thunderbirds.

The major plotline of the game centered around the Halifax offense, which had threatened to blow up the league in the early part of the season. The Thunderbirds had put up a ridiculous 39 goals in two games. If the Bandits were going to win this early season test against an undefeated opponent, they had two paths. Buffalo could outscore Halifax, a difficult assignment, or it could try to hold the T-Birds’ offense down.

“They have a lot of athletic guys, particularly on the back end, who like to push the ball,” forward Josh Byrne said. “And so do we. That makes for a fast-paced game.”

The first half featured a little bit of both strategies. The teams were tied at 2-2 after 15 minutes in a game that seemed more or less calm. Then everything broke open in the second period. The teams scored six goals each, cramming a combined six goals into one stretch that lasted two minutes and 30 seconds.

And Byrne was brilliant along the way. He scored five goals in the first half to almost single-handedly keep the Bandits in the game. Two of those goals were shorthanded, as Buffalo scored three times while a man down in the half. The latter number was a Bandits’ record, at least going back to 2005 when available records begin.

Then came the third period, which turned out to be the key portion of the game. The Bandits kept scoring, but Halifax stopped. That results in five straight goals by Buffalo in the first 12 minutes of the quarter. Goalie Matt Vinc was brilliant during that stretch, making 21 saves on 23 shots. On a night when he allowed 13 goals, Vinc allowed the Bandits to grab momentum. He finished with a career-high 65 saves, setting a team record – not bad for a 40-year-old. (The old mark was 60, set by Vinc in 2022 and Daniel Sames in 2008).

“He’s solid every game,” Smith said about Vinc. “I remember the first time we got Matt, it was a relief because we went from a good team to a great team. He’s the best goalie to ever do it. I know he was frustrated to give up eight goals in the first half, and it wasn’t even his fault. He bounced back and played unbelievable.”

From there, Buffalo maintained at least a two-goal lead – and usually more – for the rest of the game. The transition game was particularly effective, as the team often stepped on the gas when it had the opportunity to create chances in that way.

In the big picture, the Bandits had done what was needed after an Opening Night loss to Albany. They had taken on two potential major rivals for supremacy in the East Division, Toronto and Halifax, and beaten them both.

“I’m super-proud of the boys, after we started 0-1 against Albany,” Byrne said. “It was a big hit for us. But we went up to Toronto and battled, and then we had a statement game against Halifax. It says a lot about the guys.”

Meanwhile, Byrne finished with a career-high seven goals for the night. That joins Bandits’ Royalty, as now only four players have reached the lofty standard. Mark Steenhuis had eight goals in 2009 to set the team record, while John Tavares and Darris Kilgour also hit seven in a game.

“We just stuck with the offense,” said Smith, who had three goals and seven assists to go with Byrne’s 11 points. “He was feeling it. He’s a great player; you saw that tonight. Even when he’s not scoring, he’s going the dirty work. It’s pretty cool to see him go off like that. I just give him the ball, and he’d take the shot. He couldn’t miss.”

By the way, lacrosse often uses the phrase “sock trick” to describe someone who scores six goals in a game. When Byrne hit No. 6, some socks actually were thrown on to the field, along the lines of hats when a hockey player scores three goals. You’d think people around here would want to hang on to their socks for the next snowstorm.

The game wrapped up the calendar year for the Bandits, and 2022 was a good one for them overall. Still, it’s been a year that will be remembered locally mostly for tragedy, between the shooting spree in a supermarket and the deaths caused by this year’s storm. The Bandits are just as ready as the rest of us to get to 2023.

“Part of my dedication to this game was to help out the people of Buffalo,” Tavares said. “Last (season) we had the grocery store, and this year we have the snowstorm. I don’t think people realize how resilient people in Buffalo are. I didn’t experience the storm, and I can only imagine what it was like when people were stuck in cars and dying. That’s unbearable. We dedicated the game and the win to the city of Buffalo.”

“It hasn’t been the best year for a lot of people in Buffalo,” Smith added. “If we put a smile on one or two faces, that’s our goal. We play for more than just ourselves. We play for all of Buffalo. Again, I can’t thank them enough for showing up. It was awesome.”

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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