By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
When the Buffalo Bandits’ 13-4 thrashing of the Rochester Knighthawks was ending on Saturday night, Bandits goalie Matt Vinc reached down and picked up the ball.
This one was definitely headed to a place of safe keeping back home.
“It’s one of those things when you sit back after the final buzzer and breathe a sigh of relief that the game is over,” Vinc said.
The veteran had a number of reasons for enjoying this one, on a personal and team level. Start with the fact that he had beaten a Rochester team whose uniform he wore for the past eight seasons – one still filled with his close friends.
Then add that to the fact that he had 55 saves on 59 shots, a save percentage of .932. In a game in which a goalie is considered to have an exception game when he stops four out of every five shots, that’s off the charts.
If it’s possible to have a relatively easy time compiling 55 saves, Vinc did it. The defense did a great job of keeping the Rochester attack looking disorganized throughout the contest. The Knighthawks usually had to take shots from the outside, allowing Vinc to see the ball on its way toward him. That made his job so much easier.
“I think we did a great job,” Vinc said about the team’s defense. “There was a lot more communication than there was in the other games. We did a great job limiting their transition. They are a dangerous team with a good power play. We did a good job of limiting their time and space, and we pushed the ball pretty well and scored a couple of big goals in transition.”
Cosmo’s record falls
Along the way, Vinc even made a bit of league history. He broke the NLL record for career saves, passing – interestingly enough – his current goalie coach, Anthony Cosmo.
“I grew up watching him play, so to be able to play with him in Banditland is something special,” Steve Priolo said about Vinc.
Add it up, and the Bandits tied a team record for fewest goals allowed in a game. That’s about as good as anyone can play defense on a given night.
“It’s never happened to me,” forward Corey Small said about the four-goal output from an opponent. “In my nine-year career, that’s the first time I’ve seen it. That was something special, especially against (Vinc’s) old team.”
Buffalo obviously offered something new that left the Knighthawks’ offense out of sync. Co-coach Rich Kilgour didn’t go into exact details about the defensive adjustment, but was quick to credit his captain for a change in strategy.
“After those first two games when we gave up all those goals, we had to make a change,” he said. “I had to check my ego at the door and change up the D a little bit. (Priolo) was one of the big ones who mentioned that we should try a couple of things. I fought him for a week but I came to my senses. He was right, the whole D was right. I’m not so vain that I won’t make some changes.”
Buffalo’s improved defense was particularly evident when the team was short-handed. Rochester went 1 for 8 with the extra man in a somewhat chippy contest.
“They were just great,” Kilgour said about the penalty-killing. “It helps to have a goalie like that. If you give up an outside shot, he’s going to get most of them. It allows the man-short (unit) to play with a lot of confidence. We’re not going to get spread out when that happens.”
The defensive performance needed some goals to go with it, and the offense came through in scoring 13 goals on 45 shots. A 5-1 burst in the third quarter really put the game away. Shawn Evans had five points, while Small, Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith had four each in a balanced attack.
Smith came off the disabled list to play on Saturday, and proved to be yet an extra weapon for an offense that scored in all possible ways from a variety of sources.
“He’s the ultimate weapon,” Small said. “He draws so much attention. Guys like myself, Josh (Byrne) and Jordan (Durston) get more opportunities. Having him out there make a huge difference for us.”
The Bandits turned over almost half their roster entering the new season, and they didn’t have much time in training camp to get to know each other. On Saturday, every aspect of the team looked like it had come together.
“That’s exactly it. You try to spend time getting to know each other and learning each other’s tendencies, but the best way to do that is to be playing,” Priolo said. “Without much of a training camp, you are thrown into the mix right away. Adjustments come along the way, and you feel comfortable with each other, and you have a game like tonight.”
Buffalo now has a week off before playing Philadelphia at home on Jan. 19. If it were up to Priolo, he wouldn’t wait that long to get back on the floor.
“I wanted to keep playing after the game!” Priolo said with enthusiasm. “That was so much fun! I know the rest would be good for the body. But there’s nothing better than being with the guys and playing lacrosse. The more you can do that, the better.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)