What a night for the fans in “Banditland” as the Buffalo Bandits (1-1) erased a three-goal fourth quarter deficit in their 2013 NLL home opener to defeat the Minnesota Swarm (0-1) by a score of 13-12 before a crowd of 15,238 at First Niagara Center.
Bandits rookie and 2012 first-round draft pick (5th overall) Dhane Smith scored the game-winning goal to complete his hat trick with 4:11 to play on a bounce-shot that seemed to have eyes for the top corner.
Trailing by two- and three-goal margins for the majority of the game, the Bandits had to dig deep to avoid starting the season with two straight losses.
“I’m very proud of the guys and the way they buckled down in the second half,” said Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour, who was calm and collected in his postgame interview.
Smith was a bit more animated in his interview when talking about his game-winning goal.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember it,” he said. “They gave me the chance to go one-on-one with the guy, I beat him and I kind of just closed my eyes and shot and it went in. It was pretty cool.”
Scoring the winning goal in front of the largest crowd of his life was certainly a thrill for the 20-year-old rookie.
“It was amazing,” Smith said. “After my first goal, I celebrated really hard and was trying to tell myself not to celebrate that hard for the next goal and then I just did it anyways because the fans got into it and I got into it.”
Veteran forward Chad Culp led the Bandits in scoring with his own hat trick and two assists. He also scooped six loose balls, the first of which was the 600th of his 11-year career.
The fourth quarter was full of thrilling moments. After Minnesota took a three-goal lead on their second shorthanded goal of the night early in the quarter, the Bandits stormed back with a four-goal run in a 4:30 span, giving Buffalo its first lead of the game and of the 2013 season.
As quickly as the Bandits grabbed the lead, it was snatched away by the outstanding play of Minnesota’s Ryan Benesch, who led all scorers with six points (3+3).
Benesch scored a pair of goals in a 41-second span, the second while being draped by two Bandit defenders on the edge of the crease, to slow Buffalo’s momentum.
“That was one of those things that should have changed the momentum of the game,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan.
But instead, it was the Bandits that came from behind yet again, this time on the power play. With Jeff Gilbert in the box for delay of game, Brock Sorensen, the second-overall pick in the 2012 NLL Entry Draft, took an illegal cross-checking penalty to give the Bandits a lengthy two-man advantage.
Buffalo made it count. First, Culp tied it back up off a beautiful feed from Shawn Williams (1+3) before Smith scored the winner just 23 seconds later with 4:11 left on the clock.
“When you have a young team, you’re going to have to live and die with them,” said Sullivan of Sorensen’s crucial penalty. “It’s a mistake that I don’t think I’ll see him make again.”
While those late penalties were crucial, the difference-maker in the game was Smith. In addition to his four points (3+1), Smith spent time playing defense and drew two penalties using his large frame, as Swarm defenders struggled to contain him.
After experiencing some major nerves in his first career NLL game in Buffalo’s season-opening loss in Philadelphia, Smith seemed quite comfortable playing in front of his home crowd.
“He was pretty nervous last night and he had a rough go of it,” said Kilgour of his young rookie. “But tonight, we had a good talk and he seemed to settle down.
“I wanted him to know that not only do I believe in him, but this whole team believes in him and he’s going to be the future of this team. If not in the near future, then right now. The improvement from last night to tonight was huge.”
For the second straight game, the Bandits started extremely flat and quickly found themselves trailing by multiple goals.
“I don’t know why we came out the way we did, why we were tentative and why we like to dig that hole and make it harder on ourselves,” Kilgour said.
“Last night, we never had the lead and tonight we didn’t have the lead until the fourth quarter,” Culp said. “It felt like we were just fighting from behind the last two games.”
Starting goaltender Anthony Cosmo did not last long, being pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots just 10:44 into the first quarter as the Bandits trailed 3-0, marking the second straight game that Cosmo was benched in the first half.
Kilgour was very direct, however, stating that Cosmo remains the team’s starting goaltender.
“I thought we played absolutely terrible in front of [Cosmo],” he said. “We weren’t doing our job and I wasn’t going to hang him out to dry again. I don’t want to crush his confidence.”
Bandits backup goaltender Kurtis Wagar was stellar in relief, making 22 saves on 31 shots to earn the victory. The seven-year veteran had seen less than 200 minutes of playing time prior to this season and probably did not expect to see this much action early in the 2013 campaign.
“[I’ve seen] a lot of rubber the past two days, a lot more than I’m used to,” Wagar said. “Being a backup goalie, you know your role. I hope [these opportunities] don’t come very often. Cosmo is our guy and we all have faith in him, but I’ve got to do my job when called upon.”
Minnesota forward Callum Crawford had a strong game offensively (2+3), as did second-year transition player Shayne Jackson (3+1), who scored a first-half hat trick.
Swarm goalie Evan Kirk was very solid in goal, making 45 saves on 58 shots. Many of those saves came in the third quarter when the Bandits were putting the pressure on but struggling to find the back of the net.
Buffalo dominated the flow of play in the second half, outshooting the Swarm 31-17 in the final two quarters. In the end, it was enough to squeak out the victory.
The Bandits travel to Rochester next week to take on the defending champion Knighthawks (0-1), while Minnesota has the weekend off before visiting the Toronto Rock on Friday, Jan. 25.