The Buffalo Bandits halted the worst losing streak in club history, defeating the Toronto Rock 21-14 on Friday night in front of 12,153 fans at the Air Canada Centre.
After trailing 11-8 at halftime, the Bandits dominated the second half, outscoring the Rock 13-3 en route to the much-needed victory.
Chad Culp led all Bandits scorers with eight points (two goals, six assists), while Luke Wiles (five goals, two assists) and John Tavares (four goals, three assists) both had fantastic offensive outings.
Mark Steenhuis continued his strong offensive play of late, netting four goals and three assists of his own, including two short-handed tallies. He has seven goals and 10 assists in his last three games.
“That was our breakout game for sure,” said Culp. “Obviously we’ve been on a bit of a slide, but it was fun actually. It’s always fun to win, it’s a lot better than losing.”
The Bandits (3-6) improved to 2-0 this season against their most bitter rival, while the Rock (4-6) are in a bit of a tailspin of their own, losers of their last three.
If you think Buffalo was celebrating this much needed victory, guess again.
“We’re still 3-6, we’ve got a huge game (Saturday at home against Minnesota), the weekend’s not over yet,” said head coach Darris Kilgour. “It’s great to get a win, it’s great to see the offense play like that, but once again in the first half we give up 11 … it was a good step, but we’ll see what happens (Saturday) night.”
Anthony Cosmo started in goal for the Bandits, but was pulled late in the second quarter in favor of Mike Thompson after surrendering 10 goals on 25 shots. The Bandits were down by only two at the time.
This was the fourth straight game that the Bandits’ starting goaltender was pulled, the second time for Cosmo.
Thompson played very well in relief, allowing only four goals on 20 shots and coming up with some big, timely saves early in the third quarter as the Bandits were seizing momentum.
After going down 5-1 late in the first quarter, the Bandits appeared headed to yet another loss, but that was not the case this time around.
“It was different this week,” said Kilgour. “The boys never put their heads (down), they never hung their shoulders, they just kept going forward and they just kept saying ‘keep going boys, keep going.’
“They willed it out and that’s what we need. We need guys with heart and with will and we had that tonight and we were a completely different team.”
Thompson, who was still on the bench at the time, also saw a very different reaction from his teammates when faced with the early deficit.
“We stayed positive and just smacked each other in the butt and said ‘Here we go, get ‘em next shift.’”
Several seemingly undisciplined penalties cost the Bandits early as Toronto capitalized on three of its first four power-play opportunities. But Kilgour was not displeased with the penalties his team took early in the game.
“Those penalties I don’t mind,” he said. “We talked about every shot they take tonight they need to pick themselves up off the ground. Nobody should be standing in front of our net celebrating a goal, they should be lying on the ground and that’s what we did.
“It adds up towards the fourth quarter where now they don’t want to cut, now they don’t want to get to the middle because they know they’re going to get hit. So we’ll take those early penalties and we’ll dig our way out of it.”
The Bandits, meanwhile, were phenomenal on the power play, capitalizing on eight of 10 opportunities. Add to that an astonishing four short-handed goals and it is no surprise that this team put 21 on the board.
The turning point in the game just after the halftime break itself as the Bandits came out and scored five straight goals to grab a two-goal lead and chase Rock goaltender Matt Roik.
Toronto game right back and tied the game again at 13, but the Bandits then ripped six straight goals with two each for Wiles, Tavares and Steenhuis.
The Bandits defense, which has been the target of strong criticism of late, clamped down and held the Rock to just three second-half goals. Physically, Buffalo imposed its will on the Rock with several bone-jarring hits throughout the contest.
Through the losing streak, many were wondering how this could happen with such a glut of veterans in the locker room.
“I think we’ve got a lot of leadership in that room and I think it sort of went astray for a bit,” said Mat Giles, who had a strong game with two goals and four assists after being scratched last week at Rochester.
“I think there was so much wisdom going on in there that guys weren’t sure if they were stepping on other guys’ toes (by) talking. Once everyone had an individual meeting with Darris (Kilgour) this week I think everyone found their role … and I think our veteran leadership stepped up.”
Culp, who is a member of the veteran class, agreed that the individual meetings had an effect on the team.
“We should have already been aware of the situation anyways, it’s too bad it got to that. (Darris) just told you basically what you were doing and what he expected of you and I think it would pump most of the guys up for sure, because some of it wasn’t good,” he said with a chuckle.
Culp had a big week off the field as well, as he and his wife, Hinda, welcomed their first child, Logan Samuel Culp, into the world. Due to the lack of sleep, Culp said he was “running off adrenaline.”
Now the focus turns to Minnesota as the Bandits try to start a streak of a winning nature Saturday at home against the Swarm.
“(The second half was the best half of the year) so far and we can build off that and obviously another big game (Saturday) night and hopefully we can just keep rolling,” said Culp.