By Budd Bailey

The Buffalo Bandits have gotten off to such a good start so far this season that the rest of us can’t really comment on the outcome. It’s the same, game after game. Therefore, observers have to be content with looking at individual play and the game’s entertainment value.

Such was the case for Friday night’s game with the Georgia Swarm. Yes, the Bandits won, 12-10, before 7,744 at the KeyBank Center. It was a close game, but Buffalo never trailed throughout the contest. There were stretches where little happened, and no one stood out. That makes for a winning performance but a tough night to pick the game’s three stars.

“I liked the outcome,” Bandits coach John Tavares said. “You have to give credit to the Swarm. They were missing a couple of key players, but it was a battle right to the end.”

Anyone who saw the first six minutes of the game would have thought the Bandits would have little trouble on this night. Four different players – Chris Cloutier, Brad McCulley (first NLL goal), Matt Spangler and Dhane Smith – scored to give Buffalo a 4-1 lead.

“It seemed like when it was 4-1, guys thought it was a point night – we kind of took our foot off the gas,” Tavares said. “They took the momentum. They scored a couple of goals, and you could hear their bench cheering after goals. They thought they were in the game, and they were. When you get a strong lead, sometimes you take it easy. It wasn’t. It was a typically close NLL game.”

“I think offensively, at times we were trying to do too much,” Kyle Buchanan added. “They’ve got some good offensive players over there. We missed some loose balls, we missed some chances. In this league, everyone can score and everyone can play. That’s what happens.”

Everything quieted down after that. On a freezing night outside, there wasn’t a great deal of energy in the building after that. Georgia tied the game, 5-5, with 8:30 gone the second period. It took a couple of goals to right the ship in that situation.

The first came from Josh Byrne. He scored the second of his two shorthanded goals of the period with 2:25 left. Then Buchanan followed up with 2.3 seconds left by scoring on a rebound to make it a two-goal lead again.

“When it’s six on five (the goaltender was pulled), we have so many weapons and so many threats,” Buchanan said. “Dhane (Smith) came around and shot. I was able to pick up the garbage and put it in. … Having a two-goal lead after the first half definitely was a good feeling.”

From there, the Buffalo lead stayed between one and three goals for the rest of the game. Georgia moved within one on a pair of goals by Jordan MacIntosh, and had 3:39 left in regulation time to try to tie it up. But with about two minutes left, Georgia’s Joel White was a little too enthusiastic about trying to create a turnover, and picked up a minor penalty for boarding. Rookie Tehoka Nanticoke needed only 13 seconds to score the clinching goal.

If you are looking for an unsung hero for the night, try the Bandits’ penalty killers. They held the Swarm to a 0-for-3 performance on the power play, and scored two goals along the way. That might have been the difference.

Byrne finished with seven points, adding five assists to the two goals. Smith had five points, and Cloutier added four. On the other hand, nine different players put the ball in the net for Buffalo. That sort of balance is always welcome.

“It’s easy to check one guy, but we’re fortunate that we attack by committee,” Tavares said. “You don’t know who will get two, three or four on a given night. I’ll take that, as opposed to a couple of same guys doing it. It was nice to see all of the offensive guys contribute,” Tavares said.

Everyone in the NLL has been having problems figuring out who might be in the lineup in a given week. It’s been no different for the Bandits. They put Nick Weiss and Justin Martin on the protocol list before the game. As the saying goes, it’s a case of “next man up.”

“You need depth,” Tavares said. “I was thinking about our lineup on Tuesday and Wednesday. But this week there was no point; you don’t know who will test positive – including myself. I have to wait until gameday.

“We came in Thursday night. We practiced here, we got tested here. I didn’t know who was going to test positive, so I had to wait until game time. We’ve actually been pretty fortunate with Covid. We’ve only had a few guys miss a game.”

Buffalo was scheduled to have a showdown with the other undefeated team in the league, Halifax, next weekend. But that one already has been postponed. We’ll have to wait to see when that one is rescheduled – supposedly sometime in March.

The Bandits will wait until January 29 for their next game, a road contest in New York. And they’ll try to be even better as the season continues – even if it won’t show up in the standings.

“If you look back at 2019, all we’re looking at getting better every single week,” Byrne said.  “We know at the end of the day, the regular season doesn’t mean anything. We’re trying to mold our team and find our identity – and work to the last game.”

(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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