The Buffalo Bandits (4-1) seized sole possession of first place in the East Division by holding on for an 11-10 home win over the two-time defending champion Rochester Knighthawks (3-1) before 13,339 fans at First Niagara Center on Saturday night.
After opening the season with an embarrassing home loss, Buffalo has roared back with four consecutive victories. For Rochester, it was the first loss of their 2014 campaign in which they are attempting to win an unprecedented third-straight title.
Bandits goaltender Anthony Cosmo played superbly, turning away 46 of Rochester’s 56 shots on goal for a .821 save percentage.
“I credit my defense; my defense played incredible in front of me,” Cosmo said.
The Buffalo defense was indeed smothering for most of the evening, forcing Knighthawks shooters to the outside and forcing low-percentage shots.
“[The defense] limited the shots to the outside and when they did get inside, I had built enough confidence from those outside shots that I stood behind them and got some luck,” Cosmo added.
The strong defensive play only lasted about 55 minutes, however, as Rochester poured in five goals in a 3:35 span closing to within one goal, creating a very nervous energy throughout ‘Banditland’.
Buffalo had a seven-goal lead heading in to the fourth quarter, making a Bandits victory appear certain. But Rochester made it very interesting late, outscoring Buffalo 7-1 in the fourth quarter, ultimately falling just short of an improbable comeback.
“In the last five minutes we gave up two pretty quick and I think guys got a little scrambled, our bench got a little bit disorganized,” Cosmo admitted. “It’s something for us to learn from. In this league, you can’t let up for five minutes.”
Much of Rochester’s success late the game came with their goaltender pulled in favor of an extra attacker, a look to which Buffalo appeared unable to adjust.
“We didn’t pressure the ball. Suddenly it was 6-on-5 and we were letting them tee off,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “We have to be better in a situation like that.”
In front of Cosmo, the Bandits defense was strong, controlling the tempo of the Rochester offense. Leading the way defensively was veteran Rory Smith, in his first season as a Bandit.
“Rory Smith is an amazing defender,” Cordingley stated. “He’s a strong guy, he’s great [positionally]… He battles; he’s a warrior, and you’re going to win with guys that are willing to do that.”
Buffalo’s offense was powered by none other than the legendary John Tavares, who led all scorers with four goals. Second-year player and local product Joe Resetarits had his first career hat trick with three goals while adding an assist.
Ryan Benesch had six points (0+6) while Shawn Williams (2+3) and Mark Steenhuis (1+4) each had five points for the Bandits.
Rochester scorers were led by Cody Jamieson with six points (3+3) and Joel McCready with five points (3+2).
The first quarter was characterized by absolutely smothering defense by both teams, with only one goal scored and 15 total shots on goal.
In the second frame, Buffalo found a way to solve the Knighthawks stifling ‘D’, finding the back of the net five times in the quarter.
Meanwhile, Cosmo was phenomenal in goal for Buffalo, holding Rochester to just two goals on 24 shots in the first half. His stellar play included no fewer than five remarkable saves from point blank range; all five were attempts by different Knighthawk players.
Rochester was held without a goal until the 8:16 mark of the second quarter (23:16 shutout streak). It was the longest the Knighthawks were held without a goal to open a game since April 24, 2010 against the Stealth (8:50 of the second quarter).
While Cosmo credited his defense, Rochester’s bench boss had other thoughts.
“I think Cosmo was our problem,” Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen said. “He played exceptional tonight. I’ve known ‘Coz’ for a while and he was making saves like he did as a young guy. Defensively they were real strong in the middle, clogged it up and gave us some back lanes and bad opportunities. But when we did have an opportunity, ‘Coz’ was there.”
The second half opened much like the first, with both teams cracking down on defense, allowing just one each through the first 12 minutes of the frame.
That’s when Tavares made his presence felt, scoring a pair of goals in a 1:53 span, the second of which was a gorgeous split dodge followed by a crease dive, burying the ball behind Rochester goaltender Matt Vinc.
On the goal, Tavares looked more like a 22-year-old than the 45-year-old that he is. Tavares disagreed.
“I think I [looked pretty old]; I barely got there,” Tavares said. “Vinc came out on me, made it a little easier to reach around him. But it’s tough to get to the other side of the crease now; when I dive I land on the same side of the crease.
“It’s more like a fall than a dive,” he added with a chuckle.
Tavares’ third and fourth goals came at a critical time late in the third quarter. With Buffalo leading 7-3,
Rochester’s offense was starting to create better chances.
“When you see a team making a little run you want to answer back,” he said of his timely goals.
With just 6.6 seconds left in the third, Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis scored, giving the Bandits a 10-3 lead heading into the final quarter.
That would be the last action that Vinc saw, as he was replaced between the pipes by back up Angus Goodleaf.
This was the first time that Vinc, the reigning NLL Goaltender of the Year, failed to see action in the fourth quarter in an appearance since February 8, 2009. ‘Vno’, as Vinc is known, finished the game with 25 saves on 35 shots, for a less-than-stellar .714 save percentage.
“Vno had a lot of guys in on him,” Hasen said. “I think offensively they did a lot of good things, we were second guessing a few times [allowing guys] right in on ‘V’. He made a few good saves, and a couple that sneaked by him.”
With Goodleaf in goal, Rochester mounted a furious comeback that fell just short.
“We were pressing [late in the game] and they were dropping for us,” Hasen said of his team’s ‘no-quit’ attitude. “A little bit of desperation. It’s good that we gave ourselves a chance, but they outplayed us for 55 minutes.”
Rochester forward Dan Dawson did not play at all in the second half and he was seen walking with a slight limp outside the locker room following the game.
Dawson has appeared in 183 consecutive games, a streak that could be in jeopardy if he’s significantly injured.
This early in the season, a game with first place on the line is big, but it’s not everything.
“This was a test for both teams,” Cordingley said. “Both teams won three games in a row coming into this game and it was a one-goal game.
“It’s a good test to see where we’re at and what we need to work on.”
Both teams are back in action next Saturday February 1, with at home against the Toronto Rock, while Rochester travels west to take on the West division-leading Edmonton Rush.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Anthony Cosmo
2) John Tavares
3) Joe Resetarits