BUFFALO — The Buffalo Bandits did more than just win the first game of a best-of-three playoff series on Sunday.
For three hours, Buffalo’s National Lacrosse League team gave its fans a respite from a weekend where a senseless tragedy shook the community, outscoring the Toronto Rock 18-17 at KeyBank Center to take a 1-0 lead in the NLL East final.
“It was definitely with a heavy heart we played that game,” Bandits head coach John Tavares said. “There was a lot of talk in our room of playing for the community.”
“It was great to get a win for the crowd. It was great our guys stepped up. In my heart, I felt they were winning it for the community.”
The city was rocked by a shooting inside a Tops supermarket on Saturday where a lone gunman killed 10 people and wounded three others in what is being treated as a hate crime. The teams did hold a moment of silence and gave proceeds of their 50-50 draw to the victims’ families. But then the Bandits did its best to give their loyal fanbase, that led the NLL in attendance this season, the same level of in-arena entertainment that they are accustomed to and give them a smile when it was most needed.
The game itself was one of the better ones in the league this season, one where both teams responded well when falling behind.
“That was a heck of a lacrosse game,” Rock coach Matt Sawyer said. “There are a lot of high-powered offensive players out there.”
What may have been the difference, however, was the Bandits’ ability to go to the front of the net and challenge goaltender Nick Rose. The Rock meanwhile were potent from mid-range and outside.
“We got a lot of tough checks and they did a good job putting pressure on us,” Sawyer said. “We’ve been pretty (good) from mid-range but we have to find a way to keep them outside more than we did tonight.”
The Bandits started the game a bit sharper, taking advantage of Toronto mistakes to build a 5-3 lead after a quarter. A broken defensive play allowed Ian MacKay to score in transition. Then a miscue deep in the defensive zone by Josh Jubenville allowed Steve Priolo an easy goal. Josh Byrne, Connor Fields, and Dhane Smith also scored for Buffalo while Rob Hellyer, Zach Manns, and Justin Scott, who was just inserted into the lineup on Sunday, scored for the Rock.
Both teams went on scoring runs in the second, resulting in five goals each. The Rock got two goals from Tom Schreiber and two more from Manns, who completed his hat trick on a long shot late in the shot clock. The Bandits responded with five of their own. Chase Fraser scored twice, including a behind-the-back low shot. Chris Cloutier also got his first two, including one which went off the leg of Rose. Smith also scored his second. Challen Rogers scored with a second left to bring the Rock back to within two at 10-8.
The Bandits extended the lead in the third with Byrne’s second and Cloutier’s third. Then the Rock went on another four-goal run started and ended by Dan Craig. Manns added his fourth of the game and Rogers scored his second. This set up the final quarter with the teams tied at 12-12.
The Rock began the final period with Brandon Slade and Rogers both scoring. But from there, the Bandits took full control. Kyle Buchanan and Byrne tied the game quickly. Then Byrne completed his hat trick to put Buffalo ahead for good. Tehoka Nanticoke and Fields added to the lead. Rob Hellyer and Scott brought the Rock to within one with three minutes left. But Smith, the NLL’s leading scorer during the regular season, completed his hat trick and a 10-point night.
The Rock did get a late goal from Schreiber and could have tied it at the buzzer, but Toronto’s final shot hit the post.
“It was a roller-coaster game for both teams,” Tavares said. “We were up by four, then they came back.”
“Both teams are going to go back and do their homework and prevent 17 or 18 goals against. These are the playoffs, and usually these games are a bit more low-scoring.”
The only surprise of the game may have been the number of goals given up by Rose and Bandits’ goaltender Matt Vinc, the leading candidates for goaltender-of-the-year in the league.
“It’s tough to be a goaltender, these guys are very, very accurate,” Tavares said. “These guys can get goals from the smallest spots.”
During a break in play, fans saluted Tavares on his upcoming induction to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Tavares played 25 seasons with the Bandits and is the NLL’s career leading scorer.
The second game of the series is Saturday night at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton. The Rock will be hoping to force a third game back in Buffalo on May 28.
“The goal will be to be at our best in all three areas for 60 minutes. It was a heck of a lacrosse game and we just came up short, so it’s a but tough now,” Sawyer said.
The series winner will face either the Colorado Mammoth or San Diego Seals in the best-of-three NLL Championship Series. The Mammoth hold a 1-0 lead in the West final and can clinch the series on Saturday night in Denver.
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