By Budd Bailey
It’s difficult to know how to take the Buffalo Bandits’ 10-7 loss to the Toronto Rock in the KeyBank Center on Saturday night.
Admittedly, the game meant nothing in the standings. The Bandits were going to finish with the best record in the National Lacrosse League no matter happened in the final game of the season. The Rock was going to be second in the NLL East and have home-field advantage team against anyone but Buffalo. If this game had been played in the NFL, the top players would have been told to stay on the bench and enjoy the view for the night.
“You don’t play cautiously, but maybe that was on some of the guys’ minds,” defender Steve Priolo said. “For me, every game is so important. You don’t want to create any bad habits. You want to work on systems. You only get 18 chances at this year, so you want to do things properly.”
But … but … but …
There are a couple of warning signs here that will at least give the Bandits food for thought. This was a team that started the season 13-1, dominating everyone in the league. It finished 1-3. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little momentum entering the postseason, and Buffalo certainly did not do that down the stretch.
“There are a couple of ways to look at it,” Kyle Buchanan said. “You don’t want to go out on a low note, but we were 14-4. That’s a heck of a year. You have to keep that in mind.”
“They exposed a few things of our team that taught us what we need to improve on,” coach John Tavares said. “If they can do that now, as a coaching staff, we have to take this as a learning experience and get better for the playoffs.”
More specifically, this might have been the time to send Toronto a bit of a message. That didn’t happen. The Bandits and Rock figure to be the favorites in the first round of the playoffs, so they certainly could meet in the East final. The Rock won the season series between the two teams, two games to one. If nothing else, Toronto knows it can stay with its counterparts across the border. That sort of confidence is nice to have.
The Bandits played a very good first half, especially on defense. They only allowed one goal to Toronto in the first 30 minutes in taking a 5-1 lead. Goalie Matt Vinc wasn’t particularly busy, as his defense did a very good job of limited the number of shots by the Rock. There’s only been one Bandits’ game in history in which the team shut out an opponent for an entire half, but this was pretty close to that.
Buffalo’s offense wasn’t in top form, but it was good enough. Josh Byrne and Kyle Buchanan had a couple of goals each, but it wasn’t a particularly efficient couple of periods. Opposing goalie Nick Rose was part of the reason, but not all of it. With Toronto doing so little on offense, a couple of more goals might have gone a long way.
“I’ll take a couple of goals anytime,” Tavares said. “It was a low-scoring game for the most part.”
The third period saw Toronto climb back into the game at 5-3, but Buchanan scored what felt like a huge goal shortly after a faceoff with a steal/sprint/score play in the Toronto end. The lead was 6-3 with 15 minutes to go. That traditionally has been safe.
But not this time. The Rock climbed back into the game. The major villain was Challen Rogers, who had a hat trick in a span of less than nine minutes. He tied the game, 7-7, with less than five minutes to go. But instead of pausing to enjoy the view, Toronto kept coming on. Tom Schreiber scored the game-winner only 34 seconds after Rogers tied it. Sheldon Burns added some insurance, and former Bandit Mitch de Snoo added an empty-netter to send a season-high crowd of 13,481 home disappointed.
To put this into perspective, the Bandits have only lost four games since 2005 when they held at least a three-goal lead entering the fourth quarter.
It all spoiled a night that was supposed to feature some individual accomplishments. Dhane Smith was supposed to score some points and break his own league scoring record for a season. Instead, he was completely blanked for the first time since 2017.
“They are a good defensive team; I think they led the league in goals against,” Tavares said. “Credit to them – shutting down Dhane Smith is a hard thing to do. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Dhane worked his butt off tonight.”
Meanwhile, Vinc was supposed to break the league record for saves by a goalie in a season. He felt five short of Anthony Cosmo’s mark.
Turning the page
So now the regular season is over, and maybe this is a good reminder to the Bandits that anything that happen in the past few months won’t be remembered past Sunday. They get a fresh start on Saturday night when Albany comes to town for the single-elimination playoff game.
The FireWolves and the Bandits played two times in the regular season. The first one was on February 18, the memorable contest in which all of the game’s goals were scored at one end. The Bandits won that one, 13-8, and took the rematch in Albany by a 12-11 score in overtime.
You usually don’t go up against bad teams in the playoffs, and Albany is no pushover.
“They’re a good team,” Buchanan said. “They have a good goaltender. I think they are deep in their group. They’ve played together for a while. I think that’s an organization I played with, and there are a lot of familiar faces over there. They trust each other a lot, and they want to work really hard. We have to match that.”
Then again, the Bandits have shown that when they are playing well, they can handle anyone in the league. Maybe this is a case of taking care of their own business and forcing the other team to react to that.
“The toughest opponent (the team has played this year) has been ourselves,” Priolo said. “These streaks that we let teams go on, these times when we have breakdowns for five or six minutes, have really hurt us. Mostly our offense has been able to bail us out, to give us time to address those issues. We just happened to lose to Toronto twice, and New York and Colorado. When we stay settled, that’s our best game. That’s what is most important going forward.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)