By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The margin for error in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division can be measured in microns these days. That’s one-millionth of a meter, for those who need a quick refresher on their high school science classes.
Just look at what happened to the Buffalo Bandits on Saturday night.
They came into the game with a 7-7 record, good for a four-way tie in the division. Had they lost to New England, they would have fallen all the way to the basement in the five-team grouping. Remember, three teams make the playoffs.
Instead, they took a 14-11 decision over the Black Wolves before 13,709 in the KeyBank Center. The team therefore could be called “the first-place Bandits” by the end of the evening. Rochester won its game later on Saturday night, giving Buffalo some company in the penthouse of the division.
And yes, the view from the top floor is much better than the one from the basement.
“It would be better if it was a five- or six-game lead, but we’ll take it,” coach Troy Cordingley said. “We’ll take any win we can get. Any win in this league is satisfying.”
The Bandits have righted the ship for the moment, and it’s been reflected in the standings. Buffalo lost four games in a row at one point to fall under .500 briefly, but the second straight win over the Black Wolves (now losers of four in a row) turned its fortunes around for the time being.
“It could be that the starts of the game weren’t good,” Cordingley said when asked about the turnaround. “We’re not giving anything away now.”
THE GOOD, AND THE BAD
Buffalo couldn’t complain about the start to this one. The Bandits led by a 5-0 count with 12:30 gone in the first period. The five straight goals matched a Buffalo record for most consecutive scores at the beginning of a contest (the statistic only goes back to the 2005 season).
“It’s nice when our offense is clicking a bit and gets some goals,” forward Josh Byrne said. “We were clicking for sure.”
Even so, prosperity did not last long on Saturday night, mostly because of the work of New England’s Kevin Crowley. He scored four goals in the first half (he finished with five), the last of which made it a 7-7 game late in the second quarter. The outcome was very much up for grabs at halftime with Buffalo up by 8-7.
It stayed that way during an unusually quiet third quarter in which a total of one goal was scored – Chase Fraser’s third of the game. One of them was a backhand crease dive, which was one of those “did that really happen?” moments.
“That kid is one of the most athletic persons I’ve seen in my life,” the 23-year-old Byrne said about the 22-year-old Fraser.
BACK AND FORTH
The tempo picked up noticeably in the fourth quarter, which was quite tense. The teams combined for eight goals in the first nine minutes. The Bandits never trailed, but they were rarely comfortable. In the final minutes, though, Buffalo goalie Alex Buque simply stopped everything thrown at him to prevent the Black Wolves from making one last run.
“He made some sensational saves,” Cordingley said. “He made some good saves for the whole games. We didn’t have defensive pressure at times. Usually the guys in this league can bury it when they get uncontested shots, but he was ready.’
Our defense played better. In the first and third periods, they were sensational tonight. In the second and fourth, we missed some assignment. We’ll fine-tune it.”
Shawn Evans had a relatively quiet goal and six assists, while Dhane Smith had a goal and five assists. Byrne finished with two goals and four assists.
“We were sharing the ball, and the offense started to click,” Fraser said.
The Bandits have their last bye week of the season coming up next, and then the stretch drive arrives in earnest. Buffalo plays in Calgary on April 14, and then hosts division rivals Toronto (April 21) and Rochester (April 28). Maybe we’ll know how the NLL East will shape up by the time those two division games are played. But it much more likely that we won’t know much until the end of the month.
“Here every game is a playoff game,” Fraser said. “We’ve got to win out.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)