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  • Budd Bailey

Bandits wrap up playoff position

By Budd Bailey

The first step for a championship team to earn the chance to defend its title is to qualify for the playoffs.

On Saturday night, the Buffalo Bandits did that in an emphatic way.

The Bandits were in control from start to finish in dominating the Calgary Roughnecks, 14-7, before a delighted 19,070 in the KeyBank Center. Buffalo improved its record to 10-7, which means it is guaranteed of having a winning season, and it will claim one of the eight postseason slots in the National Lacrosse League.

“Definitely, it was nice punching our own ticket,” coach John Tavares said. “It probably was one of our best games of the year.”

The team has not had a particularly easy path to the playoffs. A three-game losing streak left the team’s chances in jeopardy, as it had a 5-6 record and hadn’t been playing with consistency. But since then, the Bandits have won four out of five games – and probably should have won the other game against Panther City, a contest that featured a blown Buffalo lead in the final minute.

“It’s been a long season, and a tough grind,” Josh Byrne said. “I’m proud of our guys sticking with it. We could have folded, with a couple of losses in a row. But it feels like we’re starting to play our best ball.”

While the Bandits are known for their offensive firepower, it was the defense that really took a step up in the game with Calgary. Buffalo blanked the Roughnecks for the first 23 minutes of the game, one of the best such starts in recent team history.

It’s been a unit that has been bothered by inconsistent play and injuries during the season. That overall play at that end of the floor was a welcome sign with the postseason now only two weeks away.

“I’m most proud of the seven goals against,” Tavares said. “We’ve been giving up more than 12 on almost every game so it’s nice the game under 10 and keeping it at seven. Kudos to the defense and to Matty (Vinc, the goalie).”

Vinc was the game’s No. 1 star with 43 saves on 50 shots. He was particularly sharp in those first 23 minutes, which prevented Calgary from getting any momentum.

As for the defenders, the midseason acquisition of veteran Paul Dawson seems to become more important by the game. Now that’s he’s learned the first names of his teammates, he’s helped the defense become more cohesive.

“It’s huge,” Byrne said about Dawson’s impact. “Paul really calms our defense down. He’s been in the league for 17, 18 years. It speaks volumes, what it’s meant for us. We’re more confident with him in the lineup. Everyone done a great job of stepping up. ”

On offense, it was another milestone night for Byrne. He collected his 50th goal of the season, the first time he’s ever been over that number, and finished with seven points. Byrne was named the team’s Most Valuable Player before the game, and he looks like he could be a candidate for league honors.

“It’s one of those things,” Byrne said. “I’m extremely lucky to be with this group. In my opinion Dhane (Smith) is the best player in the world. He takes so much attention, and he’s such a great team leader that I get to just sit on the wing. It’s nice to feed off that.”

Smith had a goal and six assists for a typically quiet seven-point game. Kyle Buchanan and Chris Cloutier chipped in with four points.

Then there’s the case of Chase Fraser, who had four goals on the night. Two of them were demonstrations of superb athleticism. This is a player who has battled injuries on-and-off for years, but you’d never know it by what he was able to do on Saturday night. Fraser only needs two goals in his final game to tie his career high of 32 games in a season.

“This season I’ve taken some recovery and maintained my body,” he said. “I’ve dropped a couple of pounds, and added some strong muscle. I’m playing the way I know I can play.”

The Bandits had a 4-0 lead after 15 minutes, and a 9-2 margin after 30. For a team that has had more than its share of close games this season, this was a game that was relatively stress-free for a change.

“Those games have come down to a goal or two, so it’s nice having that odd game when you’re on the winning end by six or seven,” Tavares said. “It’s definitely nice. We can relax a little bit and not get so stressed out. It seemed like every game this year has been a tight one. It was nice to control a game for 60 minutes.”

“Actually, I like those close games,” Byrne said. “It’s a little bit more fun. In the fourth, everyone plays his best ball. But when we play with a big lead like that, it’s pretty cool. It’s a bit more relaxed.”

The next order of business is determining Buffalo’s place in the playoff seeding. The first two spots are out of reach, but Buffalo needs to beat Vegas next week and hope for some help in the form of losses by either Georgia and Albany to earn a home game. Both of those teams have the tiebreaker edge on the Bandits. Albany plays Panther City on Sunday (a win clinches third place for the Firewolves), and Rochester next week, while Georgia has a home game with Rochester on Friday.

The Bandits will know where they stand as far as a home playoff game is concerned by the time the contest in Vegas starts. But they still may need to win against an opponent with nothing at stake (Vegas is out of the playoff picture) to insure they receive as high a seed as possible.

“It’s a business trip,” Fraser said. “We’ve got one more game to the season. We’re going to put together and full 60 minutes and get ready for the playoffs. We need to play our game. … It’s kind of a trap game, and we’ve got to dominate and continue to play 60 minutes.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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