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  • Budd Bailey

Bandits notch a comeback for the ages

By Budd Bailey

The Buffalo Bandits probably didn’t know how deep a hole they had dug for themselves in Saturday’s playoff game against the Toronto Rock.

With 13 minutes and 28 minutes to go, the Rock had taken an 8-4 lead. Care to guess how many times in the past 20 years the Bandits had overcome that sort of fourth-quarter lead to win?

The answer is one – a January 19, 2018 game in Saskatchewan. Pat Saunders had the overtime winner, his final score in his short stay as a Bandit, as Buffalo rallied from an 12-8 deficit. Since 2005, when records became available, the Bandits had been 1-12 when down by four so late in the game.

So make it 2-12.

Buffalo stormed back with the final six goals of the game to beat Toronto, 10-8, before 16,312 in the KeyBank Center. The win completed a sweep of the best-of-three NLL semifinal series.

“We just had to keep our composure there and try a little bit harder,” Chase Fraser of the Bandits said.

It’s on to the league final for the third straight year and fourth consecutive season (the 2020 and 2021 seasons were wiped out by the pandemic). The sport's record for consecutive finals is three, set by three teams including Toronto.

The possibility for a Buffalo rally seemed rather unlikely for much of the night. The Bandits, who had played one of the greatest defensive games in their history on Friday night in the series opener, were a bit off for most of the initial 45 minutes. They took some penalties that resulted in three Toronto power-play goals in the second period. Buffalo’s offense also was a shade off, as both its passing and shooting was off target frequently.

“We were flat offensively all game long,” Bandits coach John Tavares said.

“At halftime I felt we weren’t so out of it, and we weren’t not down on ourselves,” Dhane Smith added. “We knew penalties were a huge issue. But we knew being down 6-3, we had a chance. The third quarter was a little bit rough.”

But after Mark Matthews made it a four-goal lead, two of the most outwardly emotional members of the Bandits turned the tide. Fraser and Tehoka Nanticoke scored within 56 seconds to cut the lead to 8-6, and their outsized reaction helped to turn up the crowd noise by several decibels.

“It was awesome,” Fraser said. “It’s the fans. You score, score another one, and the fans’ energy picked up. You try to ride that wave of energy and keep going forward.”

“He brings a lot of energy, and it’s contagious,” Tavares said about Fraser. “A lot of times when he scores, there’s something miraculous about it. … When he scores, it’s something about his style.”

Fifty-three seconds later, Josh Byrne broke loose for an acrobatic goal to make it 8-7. Less than three minutes later, Fraser tied the game for the first time since early in the second period (3-3). And after almost three more minutes of suspense, Fraser completed a third-period hat trick to give the Bandits the lead.

“It was the weirdest shift of events I’ve ever been a part of,” Smith said. “Every goal was bang-bang-bang. It felt like a movie.”

“No one lost doubt that we could come back,” Tavares said. “That’s what championship teams do.”

Byrne added some insurance less than a minute later. The league’s top scorer had points on all six of the Bandits’ fourth-quarter goals. Meanwhile, goalie Matt Vinc stopped everything in the final 13 minutes (16 of 17 for the period), looking like the same goalie who had been so brilliant in Friday’s opener. Toronto could have hung around until Tuesday, and Vinc still wasn’t going to let the Rock rally.

“The last three games in the playoffs, Matt’s in the best shape of anyone on the team,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen him more exhausted. He said, ‘I’m ten years older than you.’ I said, ‘You have a point.’ He’s our backbone. It’s so comforting being an offensive player knowing that he’s behind us, and he’s going to make that next save.”

Vinc received plenty of help from his defense, which was strengthened by the late-season acquisition of Paul Dawson. Buffalo has not allowed double digits in goals in their last five games – all wins.

“Paul Dawson came in (via a trade) and changed the whole vibe in the locker room,” Fraser said. “That senior leader who has been doing it for a long time, that calm he has - it’s soothing and relaxing.”

It was a discouraging weekend for Toronto’s sports fans, who had to see their favorite hockey team, the Maple Leafs, lose in overtime of Game Seven Saturday night. The Rock’s defeat also wiped out the good feelings caused by the team’s 15-3 record in the regular season. Four of its five losses during the season and playoffs came against the Bandits. More to the point, Toronto’s last playoff series win over Buffalo came in 2012; the Bandits have advanced past the Rock in 2014, 2019, 2022, 2023, and now 2024.

Also noteworthy was the fact that Buffalo’s comeback came against Toronto goalie Nick Rose, the probable winner of the NLL’s top goalie of the year award and a strong candidate for Most Valuable Player. Rose was the league leader in goals-against average (9.18), save percentage (.812) and wins (12) this past regular season. But in all games against the Bandits in 2023-24, he was 0-4 with an 11.59 GAA and a save percentage of .770.

Now the Bandits will try to win two championships in a row for the second time in their history. They took the titles in their first two years, 1992 and 1993. Rochester won three in a row from 2012 to 2014.

Waiting is Albany, which finished a sweep of its own against San Diego earlier on Sunday afternoon. The FireWolves have had a Cinderella season, rebounding from a 3-15 record in 2022-23 to go 11-7 and finish third in the NLL standings – one ahead of Buffalo.

And the reason Albany will have the home-field advantage in the best-of-three Finals is that the FireWolves won both meetings with the Bandits in the regular season. Yes, that was back on December 9 and February 24. But there should be no reason for Buffalo to be overconfident about winning this matchup under the circumstances.

“We’re not going to win just by showing up. Albany is a great team,” Tavares said. “They’ve got a great goalie, an athletic defense, and some young guys who play unbelievable offense. They’ve got some great goal scorers.”

Albany’s arena is booked next weekend for college graduation ceremonies. The teams will begin the Finals on Friday, May 17 at MVP Arena. The teams will be back in Buffalo a night later for a 7:30 p.m. start. Game Three, if necessary, would be played in Albany on Friday, May 24.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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