The Buffalo Bandits (5-1) continued their strong play, extending their winning streak to five games, their first five-game streak since 2009, with a gritty 12-10 victory over divisional rival Toronto Rock (2-3) before 12,768 at First Niagara Center Saturday night.
Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis led the way with four goals and two assists, earning him first star honors. His key goal at 6:05 of the fourth quarter, his third of the game, gave Buffalo a lead they would not relinquish.
“We earned it, that’s for sure,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley coolly stated following the victory. “It was a tough, physical game, but that’s the East division; you know you’re battling for every inch. I was real proud of our guys.”
The physical nature and high intensity of the game could not be disputed, with each team racking up over 40 minutes in penalties for a total of 83.
“We had to battle through, but they had the same refs we did, and I’m just proud of us for persevering and keeping our heads straight when we’ve all seen us kind of implode [in the past],” said Bandits defender Billy Dee Smith.
Dhane Smith had five points in the game, all of them assists, proving the second-year player is as much a set-up man as he is a goal scorer.
One play stood out in particular, as the Bandits worked the power play midway through the second quarter, Smith found himself with space coming through the middle. Instead of seeking his own goal on a tough shot, he spotted Tavares wide open at the side of the net and dished it perfectly, resulting in an easy slam dunk goal.
“The thing that everybody forgets is Dhane plays defense too,” Cordingley noted. “He’s expending a lot of energy pressuring some real top-notch players on Toronto and then pushing the ball and making plays.
“Dhane is legit, fellas.”
John Tavares had four points (2+2) as the leading scorer in NLL history is still going strong in his astonishing 23rd pro season.
Ryan Benesch had three goals and Shawn Williams added three assists to the Bandits offensive effort.
It was an emotional night for Williams, as his son Tucker, who turned eight years old today, was recently diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
All the Bandits players were sporting orange t-shirts before and after the game with the slogan “Braver than Brave” on the front and “Tucker” on the back.
“We are one big family and when one of our family members is going through some tough times, we have to bail him out,” Cosmo said. “I know Tucker loves the game of lacrosse… and we’re here for Shawn in any capacity that we can.”
Anthony Cosmo had another strong outing in goal for Buffalo, making 39 saves on 49 Toronto shots for a .796 save percentage. The goaltender also helped his own cause by adding two assists.
Toronto was led by Garrett Billings who had five points (2+3), including his 400th career goal. Stephan Leblanc also had five points (2+3), while both Josh Sanderson (3+1) and Kasey Beirnes (2+2) had four points.
“It was a hard game, that’s for sure,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “I was happy with the way our guys competed, especially coming off a game last night. I don’t have a problem with our effort, but the results, of course, are not what we had hoped for.”
The game opened with the type of chippy play that one would expect from these divisional and cross-border rivals, with four sets of coincidental minor penalties called within the first five minutes of play. It was clear the referees’ intention was to do everything in their power to keep control of this one early.
The teams traded goals throughout the first quarter and into the second quarter when the Bandits finally put in two straight, a pair of Tavares tallies. Toronto came right back with a pair of their own, as Billings and Sanderson both potted power play goals.
Buffalo would come right back, however, with another pair of goals, this time from Benesch and Steenhuis in a 20-second span to take a 7-5 lead into halftime.
“I thought Mark Steenhuis was sensational tonight,” Cordingley said. “With his ball control and feeding guys and getting into spots where he could bury. He was real good all night.”
The chippiness continued well into the second quarter, as the teams combined for an astounding 21 minor penalties in the first half alone.
The goal from Benesch at 12:38 of the second quarter was one that Bandits fans will relish as it might as well have been Tavares as the shooter. Benesch stood on the offensive left side at mid-range, a location many know as ‘Tavares’ office’ and sent a seemingly effortless shot into the far post.
The Rock stormed out of halftime, scoring three goals in the first 2:22 of the third quarter and taking their first lead of the game.
They held that lead for the majority of the third quarter, but Buffalo took it right back with a quick pair of transition goals from Chad Culp and David Brock in 1:43 span, giving Buffalo a 9-8 lead heading into the final frame.
“The fact that we came out down and won that quarter, we looked at that as being a positive,” Lovell said. “When you’re struggling to find a little bit more effort and there isn’t a lot left in the tank, we grabbed that thing and hung onto it for a while but just didn’t have enough in the end.”
Just 54 seconds into the fourth quarter, Tavares, the Bandits captain, took an uncharacteristic
five-minute major penalty for an illegal cross check, giving the Rock a golden opportunity to seize the lead.
“Not too often does [Tavares] take a [5-minute major penalty], so I don’t know if he was testing us or what,” Steenhuis joked.
Toronto was able to score only once on the major penalty, tying the game at nine.
“It would have been great to get two on that, for sure,” Lovell said.
As the penalty expired, Tavares came flying out of the penalty box, quickly took a pass and fed Steenhuis streaking down the middle to reestablish the Bandits one-goal lead with just under nine minutes to play.
“You’ve got to credit our man-short,” Steenhuis said. “They played unbelievable back there so we were just saying on the offensive end that we had to try to get that momentum back.
“It’s nice to see that we’re flipping that momentum. We might lose it for a bit but we’re gaining it back, whereas last year we kind of just relinquished it.”
The Bandits indeed held onto the momentum, soon widening their lead with another quick pair of goals in a 54 second span, a power play marker for Benesch followed by an outstanding individual effort from Steenhuis for his fourth of the game.
Buffalo’s offensive production has been spread around pretty evenly through its current five-game winning streak, a fact that has the head coach pleased.
“We stress that it’s a five-man unit; we don’t care who scores the goals, we’ve just got to work for each other to create those golden opportunities,” Cordingley said.
With 1:02 to play, Buffalo was called for too many men, and since it was with less than two minutes to play, Toronto was awarded a penalty shot.
Beirnes walked in but missed the net, ultimately sealing the victory for the Bandits.
Sanderson would add a late goal, but it was too little, too late for the Rock.
“We’ve really been battling [these last five games],” said Steenhuis. “We got up a lot on Rochester [on Jan. 25) and they came back, which is unfortunate, but we’re learning those lessons and still winning games instead of learning those lessons and losing.
“I think that’s a big factor [in our success so far] this year.”
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Mark Steenhuis
2) Anthony Cosmo
3) Garrett Billings
Toronto is next in action Friday, Feb. 7 at home against Philadelphia, while Buffalo will travel to Rochester on Saturday Feb. 8.