The Buffalo Bandits (7-2) overcame a slow start to continue their winning ways with a 12-9 victory over the struggling Minnesota Swarm (2-8) before a boisterous crowd of 15,330 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo Saturday night.
Dhane Smith’s late fourth quarter goal, his third of the game, gave the Bandits their first lead of the game with just under four minutes to play, a lead they would not relinquish. Smith finished with 5 points (3+2), earning first star honors.
After Chad Culp forced a turnover, he started up the floor but was dispossessed. Smith scooped the ball and sprinted up the floor for a showdown with Swarm goaltender Zach Higgins.
“I kind of panicked,” the 21-year old Smith admitted with a smile. “I didn’t know if I should go back to the same shot (on which he scored in the second quarter) or not, but I went back to it and luckily it went in.”
Mark Steenhuis would promptly put the game away, burying a pair of goals in a 54-second span, the second of which was an outstanding individual effort, muscling through no fewer than four Swarm defenders. Steenhuis led all runners with six points (4+2).
“That’s what best players do,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “They find ways to help the team win and Mark did that tonight for us.”
Bandits defenseman Steve Priolo had a phenomenal game, contributing four assists, scooping six loose balls and ended his evening with a spirited fight against Swarm captain Andrew Suitor with just under six minutes to play. His efforts earned him the second star of the game.
Priolo’s stellar play certainly drew the attention, and fondness, of his head coach.
“Steve is legit,” Cordingley stated. “He’s the best defender in the league, bar none. He’s outstanding. He does everything for us.”
Coming off the lengthy three-week break, the Bandits were quite rusty to start the game, particularly on offense, as they struggled to connect passes early. Minnesota capitalized on the Bandits’ slow start, opening up a 5-2 lead after the first quarter, outshooting the Bandits 18-11 in the opening frame.
“We definitely weren’t prepared for the speed,” Cordingley admitted. “You can practice as hard as you can but when you get into game mode and the speed, especially of this Minnesota team, we weren’t prepared for it and we were letting things happen; we weren’t making things happen.”
Swarm rookie Logan Schuss opened the scoring just 30 seconds into the game on Minnesota’s first possession. The Swarm’s first half lead would be as large as six, as Schuss scored early in the second quarter.
Schuss, the reigning NLL Rookie of the Month for his strong play in February, led the Swarm with four points (2+2), receiving the third star.
“Logan is just showing everybody else what we already knew,” Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan said. “We picked him first overall [in the 2013 NLL Entry draft] and there’s a reason for that. He’s got the ability to put the team on his shoulders and he’s starting to play like that.”
Minnesota also had strong showings from Josh Gillam (3+1), Kiel Matisz (2+2) and Callum Crawford (0+4).
After scoring six goals in the first 18:14 of the game, the Swarm were held to a mere three tallies the rest of the way.
“Our ball movement started lacking,” said the rookie Schuss. “We came out hard and that’s the way we want to start games. They’re a fast-paced team and we knew that, so we didn’t want to get into a track race from there.”
But the game’s pace did turn up, tantalizing fans with a torrent of back-and-forth action.
Buffalo found major success in the transition game, scoring seven of their 12 goals on the fast break.
“We knew we had to [score in transition] from the start,” Smith said. “We knew [Minnesota] would do it, they’re young guys and like to push it up the floor. Our offense puts in six or seven goals a game and we know we have to contribute as well and that’s what we did tonight.”
Buffalo’s coaching staff made a bold move in the offseason, moving Smith from a pure offensive player to a transition player predominantly coming out the back door. They did so for the stated purpose of having him back on defense so he could start the offense and push the ball quickly.
This move has paid significant dividends.
“His transition is unbelievable,” Cordingley said glowingly. “He’s so fast and has soft hands around the net, and he also makes some great big plays freeing up other guys in transition.”
On the back of the strong transition play, Buffalo fired back and scoring four straight goals to tie the game at six heading into halftime.
Overall, the first half was very evenly played. In fact, the teams were completely even in every major statistical category in the first half: 30 shots a piece, both one-for-one on the power play, and even tied at seven in faceoff wins.
Minnesota came out of the locker room flying, as Jordan MacIntosh won the faceoff clean, sprinted down and buried the ball between Bandits goaltender Anthony Cosmo’s legs a mere six seconds into the third quarter.
The goal by MacIntosh was the fastest goal to start a quarter since Apr. 19, 2008 when Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis scored just five seconds into the third quarter.
From there the teams traded a pair of goals, with a Tyler Hass tally giving Minnesota a 9-8 lead heading into the final quarter.
The Swarm would not score again, as the Bandits took control and solidified the victory.
“That’s something we’ve really got to start looking into is how to finish a game,” Schuss said. “That’s something the coaches have really been harping on us… we’ve got to find a way to keep our momentum going into the fourth quarter.”
The Bandits have been outstanding at home this season, winning their last five games in ‘Banditland’ since suffering an embarrassing opening night loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 28.
“We’ve taken pride in playing in front of our fans,” Cordingley said. “Look at the fans...they bleed black and orange. How can you not perform in front of them and play with pride and work? That’s what we’ve done at home and we’ve been successful with it.”
Despite the 2-8 record, the Swarm are not out of it by any means.
“The East Division is really tight right now, so no one’s giving up,” Schuss said. “Everyone’s heads are high and we know that we’re still in this.”
Minnesota sits just two games behind Toronto, their opponent in next week’s game, for the final playoff spot in the East with eight games yet to play.
“We’re not hitting the panic button, we’ve just got to create that sense of urgency,” Sullivan said calmly.
Meanwhile, Buffalo continues to control the top spot in the East division, though their lead remains just a half-game ahead of Rochester after the Knighthawks defeated Philadelphia Saturday night. Still, a 7-2 record at the midway point of the season is something the team can be proud of.
“We’ll take it,” Cordingley said nonchalantly. “We know that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to continue to get better and do the things that make us successful.”
Buffalo plays at home next week against Colorado, while the Minnesota returns home to face Toronto.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Dhane Smith
2) Steve Priolo
3) Logan Schuss