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Bandits create drama but win

By Budd Bailey

The Buffalo Bandits seem to be intent to supplying exciting games for their fans these days.

Maybe the games are too exciting.

For the second straight week, the Bandits let much of a good-sized lead get away in the final minutes. On Saturday, Rochester came from five back with 10 minutes to go to move within a goal of Buffalo. Even so, the Bandits held on for a 15-14 win before 17,135 in the KeyBank Center.

It was something of a rerun of last week’s game against Toronto. The Bandits scored seven straight goals in the second half to take a 16-10 lead with 2:38 to go, only to see the Rock score the game’s final four goals to supply a bit of drama.

Buffalo’s biggest task from here is supply a little less tension for all those involved.

“They went on quite a run, and they ran out of time,” Bandits coach John Tavares said. “That’s two games in a row where we fell apart at the end of the game and gave up some goals. We found ways to win, but we have to focus on that element.”

“That’s two games where we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit in the fourth quarter,” forward Josh Byrne said. “We’re too veteran of a team to make those mistakes. We have to learn from it and be better.”

There weren’t too many complaints about how the first 50 minutes went form a Buffalo perspective. After giving up the first goals, the Bandits scored the next four goals and never gave up the lead the rest of the way. What’s more, the list of heroes was a long one, as the team produced some scores that were beauties.

The good news started when Dhane Smith scored twice in the first quarter. The veteran has been having trouble putting the ball in the net this season, but he was sharp early. There was no way Rochester could cheat on him defensively after that. He finished with six points, which put him past the magic 1,000 mark for his career. Only 13 other NLL players have reached that number, and seven of them have played for the Bandits.

“That’s a great accomplishment; Dhane’s a great player,” Tavares said. “I thought he had a great game. For me personally, I hated milestones. I always wanted to get it out of the way. I’m happy for him that he got his 1,000th and got it out of the way.”

Chris Cloutier scored three goals to go with three assists, in turning in one of his best games of the season for Buffalo. His last goal provided some needed insurance when the Knighthawks closed within one in the final two minutes.

“Chris has been playing well,” Tavares said. “As an offensive player, sometime the emphasis is on your points. After watching the last couple of games, Chris hasn’t been putting the ball in the net but he’s been doing other things well. He’s been setting picks. I told him, don’t worry about scoring. That will come.”

Kyle Buchanan also had a hat trick, while Chase Fraser went 2-4=6 for Buffalo. Fraser seems like he’s displaying more athletic ability than he has in a while, perhaps because the series of injuries that have bothered him for the past couple of years finally might be behind him.

“He’s always had some nagging injuries,” Tavares said. “He’s very fit, and very strong, and very quick. He’s got a hard shot. He’s got a creative side to him, and he’s running on all cylinders right now.”

All of that doesn’t include a mention of Byrne, who had three big goals in the second half to break up Rochester’s momentum. Well, he is the leading scorer on the team.

“It’s fun for us, because we have so many different weapons,” Byrne said. “One guy gets hot, and the defense focuses on that guy, and (Buchanan) steps up with a couple of goals.”

Speaking of scoring, Christian Watts got on the scoresheet with an assist on Saturday night. That’s significant because it was his first NLL game. Even better, Watts is a local product, having played high school lacrosse for Bishop Timon. For the opening warmups, the rookie was given his old Timon uniform to wear to make sure he didn’t forget his roots.

“I found out (he was playing) at shootaround this morning, as Tehoka (Nanticoke) had some back problems,” Watts said. “It was a cool experience to find out I was in. I instantly called my family. They were pretty happy for me.”

About eight relatives and five or six friends turned up for the game, and saw someone who felt a bit nervous beforehand but settled down rather well after that.

“It was an unreal experience,” Watts said. “There’s no place like Banditland, playing in front of 15,000 people. I’ve only played in front of 1,000 in college. It was a cool experience. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”

Meanwhile, Matt Vinc was solid in goal, turning in an excellent first period that help give the Bandits that early lead. Ryan Smith and Connor Fields combined for nine goals and 11 assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough to complete the rally in spite of the frantic finish.

“Teams see that, and it gives them confidence,” Tavares said about the late-game issues. “Next time a team comes it, they’ll think they can win. … We have to make sure we handle that.”

Buffalo moved to 5-3, two games above .500 for the first time this season. There’s nothing like a 15-team league without divisions to make the standings feel claustrophobic. Interestingly, six of the eight teams at .500 are above are from the East Division of last year.

The Bandits will get a week off before they try to make it three wins in a row. Their next game is in Halifax on February 16. Then it’s back home on February 24 to host Albany.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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