By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits are no longer an indoor lacrosse team. They are a circus act.
Come see the Bandits walk along a tight rope. Watch them perform aerial maneuvers that will leave you breathless. Gasp as they stick their heads in the mouth of a lion, and emerge unscathed.
Buffalo had trailed at halftime in its previous five games, but had come back to win each and every one of them. If that’s not a record, it ought to be.
Yet they had an even better trick up their sleeve on Friday night at the KeyBank Center. The Bandits gave up six straight goals during the second half to fall behind Halifax by a score of 9-6 with less than a quarter to go. Surely this would be the time when they would slip and fall into the netting below.
Yet, it didn’t happen. Instead, Buffalo scored three goals in the final minutes of regulation time. Then the team finished off the Thunderbirds in overtime to win a 10-9 decision; Chris Cloutier did the honors at 1:58 of extra time. That delighted the announced crowd of 14,896 (well, some of them stayed off the roads because of the snow) as the fans watched their favorites improve to 10-2 on the season.
“It’s not by design, but good teams find a way to win,” ringmaster, er, coach John Tavares said. “Now we’re doing that. We’re playing with fire a bit here. Teams are strong. There’s a lot of parity in the league. You can’t take anybody lightly.”
It was another strange night for the Bandits’ lineup, as players have been coming and going at a furious pace lately because of injuries. For once, Buffalo regained the services of two key performers. Josh Byrne returned after three games, while Cloutier was back after sitting out about three months of play.
“I feel really good,” Cloutier said. “I’m really excited to be back. That’s the longest I’ve ever been out. It’s a little different for me. There were some things I had to overcome.”
But on the other hand, three more players sat out the game: Tehoka Nanticoke, Justin Martin and Adam Bomberry. With all of the comings and goings lately because of injuries, everyone has to adjust on the fly. After all, it’s tough to get used to new linemates when there’s one practice per week.
“I think we’re out of sync because we’ve been working with so many different players,” Tavares said. “There are a lot of different bodies. I don’t know if the chemistry was there. It takes time, it takes a few games to get on the same page. … I thought they did a good job of getting opportunities.”
“It’s a special team because everyone has to step into different roles,” Cloutier added. “Guys are stepping up, and it’s working. No one is selfish. Everyone is playing for each other.”
That latest lineup combination left the Bandits’ offense a bit streaky overall. For example, neither team was able to come up with a goal for the first 11:45 of the game. It’s been almost nine years since a game involving Buffalo had such a long wait for that first goal.
The Bandits discovered their scoring touch in the second quarter. Byrne and Cloutier had two goals each, and Nathaniel Kozevnikov had the first goal of his NLL career to round out the half – a score that thrilled his teammates, who knew he had been waiting since he was drafted in 2019 for such a moment.
Cloutier completed his hat trick early in the third period, and it looked like Buffalo was in good shape. Instead, the Bandits’ offense broke down, and the Thunderbirds ran off six straight goals to take a good-sized lead. But Kyle Buchanan, Byrne, and Buchanan (again) scored in less than eight minutes to tie the game with less than five minutes to go.
And give some credit to the defense too. Matt Vinc played one of his best games of the year in the Buffalo goal (48 saves), as he slammed the door on the Halifax attack when it mattered.
“I thought our defense played pretty well,” Tavares said. “It was just a matter of putting the ball in the net. The guys did a great job of maintaining their composure.”
“We keep telling ourselves that we’re never out of game,” Cloutier said. “We keep showing it, over and over again. We’re a resilient team. We’ve won games that we have no business winning. We don’t quit.”
Almost two minutes into overtime, the Bandits finally broke through – with the returning scorers doing the damage.
“Byrne-zee always gets a lot of attention when he is up top,” Cloutier said. “That left me open on the bottom. I had all the time in the world to let it go, and luckily it went where I wanted to. Warren (Hill, the Halifax goalie) just barely missed it.”
Chris Cloutier scores at 1:58 of overtime to give the Bandits a 10 to 9 win over Halifax. Buffalo scored last four goals to pull out a win. pic.twitter.com/J18kXo5D0q
— Budd Bailey (@WDX2BB) March 11, 2023
Byrne finished with three goals and six assists for nine points, Cloutier had four goals and an assist, and Dhane Smith had a quiet eight assists.
The calliope music resumes in the KeyBank Center on March 18, when the Bandits host the Colorado Mammoth. You might remember the last time that Colorado was in town, when it won the championship last June. Buffalo certainly remembers.
“Everyone’s thinking about that one,” Cloutier said. “It left a bad taste in our mouth from last year. All we can do is worry about what’s in front of us. We have to take care of business and set things straight.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)