By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits had a rare off-night on Saturday night. The Colorado Mammoth must have been involved.
Indeed, the Bandits’ six-game winning streak came to an end with a whimper with 13-8 loss to Colorado in the KeyBank Center – their most one-sided defeat of the season. It was a close game until the fourth quarter, when the Mammoth pulled away for the win.
And yes, that sounds quite familiar. It was a similar script to the one that was played out in the third and final game of the National Lacrosse League finals in 2022. You might remember that Colorado took the championship with a win in the Bandits’ very own home before a sellout crowd.
“It felt like last June, when they were gaining momentum as the game progressed,” Buffalo coach John Tavares said.
The Mammoth had rarely looked like defending champions in the first portion of the 2022-23 season, getting off to a 5-6 start. But the squad looked dangerous in returning to the .500 mark after losing four of its last five games. They seem to play the Bandits well.
“We obviously talked about that before the game in the locker room,” forward Chris Cloutier said. “I don’t know if it’s our warm-up, or what. … We thrive on getting into a rhythm in a game.
“You can’t expect to win the close games. We’re a second-half team but you can’t bury yourself in too deep of a hole. Sometimes you can’t get out of it.”
The game started quite well for the Bandits. Four different players scored in the first period for Buffalo, including a shorthanded goal by Kyle Buchanan, to put the home team up by a 4-1 count. The Bandits were playing with a lot of energy in the opening 15 minutes, and it showed.
But Colorado flipped the switch in the second quarter, scoring three goals in less than two and a-half minutes in the early portion of the period. At halftime, the Mammoth had taken a 7-6 lead.
“We took some penalties – some questionable ones – and it seemed to take away the flow of the game,” Tavares said.
“They made the adjustments they needed to do,” forward Chase Fraser of Buffalo said. “They did what they had to do to kill our momentum. We just couldn’t get it back.”
That was a familiar spot for the Bandits, who have been pulling off second-half comebacks throughout the season. But this felt different. Little happened in the third period, as each team came up with a mere goal. Josh Byrne tied the game with 12:27 left to play, but it was Colorado that took control from there. Connor Robinson had two huge goals only 1 minute, 8 seconds apart to put Mammoth up by 10-8 with about nine minutes left. When Eli McLaughlin added two more to stick a fork in the Bandits’ hopes, Tavares noticed something unusual – at least by Buffalo standards.
“The most disappointing part of the game was when I saw people getting up to leave (early),” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often in Buffalo. It’s not encouraging. I felt bad.”
The Bandits’ big guns were good but not great statistically, as you’d expect after the team only scored eight goals. Josh Byrne had a goal and five assists, Cloutier had two goals and three assists, and Dhane Smith had four assists. About the only bright spot there was Fraser, back in the lineup after missing the first 12 games of the season because of offseason surgery.
“It felt great to be back with the team,” he said afterwards. “Terrible result, but it was great to be back out there. … It was a six-month recovery process from the surgery I had. It was a lot of work, but the fun part of it is getting back.”
On offense, Ryan Lee was a welcome sight for Colorado. He played in only his second game of the season, and led the Mammoth with six points. Zed Williams, a native of Silver Creek and one of the heroes of last year’s championship game, had two points and three assists.
The Bandits are still in first place by themselves in the NLL East, at least for the moment. They dropped to 10-3, while Toronto lost to Halifax to stay a half-game behind at 10-4. However, Rochester (9-3) could join Buffalo at the top by beating Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
“if you’d had told me we’d be 10-3 at this point, I’d have been happy,” Tavares said. “We’re still in good position. We have to move forward and cut down on the mistakes.”
The Bandits have better things to do than watch the scoreboard these days. They must fly to San Diego next weekend to play the Seals, who have scored 150 goals in only 11 games this season. The idea of a weekend in Southern California must have been an attractive one after walking into the frigid wind chill along the Buffalo waterfront Saturday night. But there’s work to be done on the West Coast.
“It’s a usually a good trip, but tonight is a wake-up call,” Cloutier said. “It’s a business trip when we get there. There’s no messing around. We can’t enjoy the sun. We’re there to play lacrosse and that’s it.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)