By Budd Bailey
Ladies and gentlemen, your defending champion Buffalo Bandits are back.
For a half.
The Bandits, who steamrolled most of their opposition during last summer’s playoff run, hadn’t shown many signs of regaining that magic touch in the early portions of this season. However, on Saturday the team had a first half of domination in a game against the Colorado Mammoth – last season’s victim in the National Lacrosse League Finals.
Buffalo couldn’t quite keep that level of play up for the rest of the game, but it held on for a 12-8 victory before 15,147 in the KeyBank Center. After a 1-2 start in which the Bandits only showed flashes of their old form, this was a good-sized step forward for the team as the long quest to repeat continues.
“Putting the ball in the net solves a lot of problems,” Taveras said. “We had a good game last week against Georgia, but it makes a big difference when you score.”
“I thought it was our best first half of the year, followed up by probably our worst third quarter,” Josh Byrne said. “It works in ebbs and flows, but at the end of the day I’m proud of our group for staying with it. “
There were no complaints about how the first half went. Buffalo had a 1-0 lead through 14 minutes, displaying a level of defense that was almost air tight. Not only was Matt Vinc perfect in the net, he even stopped a rare penalty shot in the first five minutes to set the tone.
No one has scored more NLL goals in history than Tavares, yet he couldn’t remember getting one on a penalty shot. He says the play is something out of the ordinary.
“It’s different, because for me personally I’d rather go in and not think about what’s going on – have a defenseman on me and use that to my advantage,” he said. “On the penalty shot you’re taking your time, and you are thinking what you will do. I’d much prefer just having the breakaway.”
Chase Fraser scored in the final 10 seconds of the first period to put Buffalo up by two, and that seemed to get the Bandits’ offense going. Four goals came along in a little more than nine minutes in the second quarter, making it a 6-0 score. It tied a Bandits’ modern record (since 2005) for most consecutive goals at the start of the game.
Zed Williams of the Mammoth finally ended the shutout soon after that, but Dhane Smith answered with a long pass that slipped through some traffic and landed in the net for a goal. It was a welcome sight for someone who had been suffering from nothing but bad luck when shooting the ball so far in the season.
“It’s funny how it works sometimes,” Smith said. “I was looking to pass the ball and it went into the back of the net. It was a weight off my shoulder. I felt confident the whole time when I was shooting the ball.”
The Bandits built their lead to 9-2 a few minutes into the third period, and most of the fans in the building were expecting an easy ride to the finish line – especially after Colorado’s Paul Dawson was called for a five-minute major penalty. Instead, the Mammoth somehow scored three short-handed goals in a span of less than three minutes to make it a contest again. No one had ever seen anything like it.
“That whole run start with Dhane and I making a stupid decision,” Byrne said. “We tried to do something on a four-on-three that we don’t normally do. We talked about it, and said let’s try it. It backfired on us. … It’s unfair for to do that to the defense.”
It was 10-6 with a quarter to go, and then the Bandits’ defense returned to form to quiet everything down. The Mammoth cut the lead down to three with less than seven minutes left, but it’s not as if the game was in doubt.
“I thought we showed our composure,” Tavares said. “We didn’t panic. We stuck to the game plan. The guys continued to play hard and smart. We still controlled the game after that.”
Byrne finished with three goals and four assists, while Smith had two goals and five assists. Brad McCulley deserves a mention for a 2-4=6 evening, one of his best nights as a Bandit. Vinc finished with 49 saves.
You might think that the Bandits took motivation from the fact that they didn’t want to start the season with a 1-3 record. But that depended on who was asked about it after the game.
“A lot of people talk about records,” Byrne said. “For me personally, I don’t believe in worrying about our record. When it’s one and done in the playoffs, I’ll worry about the record. … Every weekend it doesn’t matter what your record is. You’re trying to go 1-0. I think we need to have that mindset, and that’s what we’ve done in the past.”
“He (Byrne) has a different mentality, which is awesome – I love it,” Smith said. “He keeps things positive. But going into the game, it’s in the back of your mind. You don’t want to slip early (in the season). As soon as the ball is dropped, that goes out of your mind. You’re worrying about each shift. You have to win that battle.”
The 2-2 Bandits will play in Rochester will try to go 1-0 on Saturday night against the Knighthawks.
(Follow Budd on X.com via @WDX2BB)