The Toronto Rock (8-9) kept their first-round home playoff game hopes alive by defeating the Buffalo Bandits (8-8) at home by a score of 13-9 before a crowd of 11,276 on 'Fan Appreciation Night' at Air Canada Centre on Friday night.
Despite a combined 167 points bring absent from the lineup (Garrett Billings 101, Josh Sanderson 66), the Rock stepped up by committee to defeat the Buffalo Bandits for the first time in three tries this season.
“It speaks to the character of our team,” said Toronto Rock head coach John Lovell. “As much as we miss [Billings and Sanderson], we can't worry about them because they're not here. We just need to trust in each other.
The win brings Toronto within 1.5 games of second place Buffalo in the East Division, a team in which the Rock are destined to play in the first round of the playoffs. While the playoff matchup is decided, the location of the game is still up in the air. The Bandits had a chance to clinch home floor on Friday night with a victory, but a winning effort from the Rock derailed the mission.
“We want to end this season on a high note,” said Rock forward Stephan Leblanc, who with a hat trick on the night set a career high in goals (42). “We want to put ourselves in the best position to host a playoff game here at home.”
The Rock, with Friday's night win in their pocket, are now just one win and two Buffalo losses away from cementing home floor in the first round of the playoffs.
Exactly two minutes after opening whistle, Rock forward Rob Hellyer opened the game's scoring with his 28th goal of the season. Buffalo's Mitch Jones, 1:07 later, answered to lock things up at one goal a side. After nearly six minutes of scoreless play, Kasey Beirnes potted a pair of goals, both on the doorstep, to start an eventual 4-1 Rock run to finish the first frame.
Buffalo quickly erased Toronto's 5-2 lead by going on a 3-0 run to start the second quarter. John Tavares, Aaron Wilson and Shawn Williams each scored within the frame's first six minutes. Just 51 seconds after the Williams goal however, Toronto's Kevin Ross capped the quarter's scoring giving the Rock a 6-5 lead heading into halftime.
At the 4:34 mark, goaltender Anthony Cosmo made history by posting his 663rd save of the season, the highest regular season total in league history. Longtime Rochester goalie Matt Vinc previously set the record last year in the same amount of games played (16).
“I think he's been our best player,” said Bandits captain John Tavares. “He's kept us in every game, he's been our most valuable player so far. It's great he set the record, but often when you set records, it's in a losing cause.”
The Rock opened the second half's scoring potting a pair a goals 51 seconds apart after nearly seven minutes of scoreless play. Buffalo's Mark Steenhuis, at the 8:22 mark, scored in the slot to shrink Toronto's lead to 8-6. Transition players Damon Edwards and Dhane Smith traded goals in the final minutes to close the frame.
After Scott Johnston scored 3:28 into the final frame, Bandit forwards Joe Resetartis and Tavares each put on on the board to pull Buffalo within a 10-9 deficit with just under five minutes left in the game. The Rock however, pulled away scoring three-straight goals in the game's final two minutes to cap off the victory.
The game's specials teams, for better or worse, was a big decider for both squads. The Rock scored four powerplay goals in five tries to break out of a recent funk on the man advantage. Prior to Friday night's game, Toronto had scored just three power play goals in 15 attempts dating back to March 30.
“A team that good offensively are going to score a man up,” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley. “It's a no brainer and we've got to be smarter. It's the little things that add up.”
After staring the season 8-2, the loss for Buffalo is their sixth-straight, which ties an all-time Bandits record for most consecutive losses in a season. To boot, this is the third-straight season in which the Bandits have done so. Their last victory came on March 15 against the Colorado Mammoth at home. Since, Buffalo has played five of their last six on the road losing every one of them. The Bandits are now 1-6 away from the First Niagara Centre, a concerning stat heading into another important road game in Rochester tomorrow night.
“We not consistent right now,” said Cordingley. “We're squeezing the stick too hard. We have some brilliant shifts and then we have some shifts when it looks like we've never played together before."
"Sometimes when you're down and out, that's when you come out of the hole,” said Tavares.
Toronto goalie Nick Rose got his first start in goal since March 22 and was solid throughout. Rose made 48 saves on 57 Buffalo shots for a clean .842 save percentage.
“It's been a tough couple of weeks,” said Rose of being backup to Brandon Miller for three-straight weeks. “I was happy to get the opportunity. We're both good goalies, so we know we can get the job done.”
On the other end of the floor, Cosmo, amid a record setting effort, made 36 saves on 47 Rock shots for .766 save percentage.
Hellyer led all shooters with seven points (1+6) in the win. Ross (3+2) and Beirnes (2+3, not far behind, followed up with five points a piece in the effort.
Steenhuis (1+3), Ryan Benesch (1+3) and Tavares (2+2) led the way for Buffalo each scoring four points in the loss.
The Bandits will get another chance to clinch a home playoff game when they take on the Rochester Knighthawks tomorrow night on the road.
Already locked in to face Toronto in the first round, Buffalo can clinch the home playoff game with a win at Rochester tomorrow night or at home against the Knighthawks in Week 18 or with a Rock loss in Minnesota against the Swarm next weekend.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Stephan Leblanc
2) Rob Hellyer
3) Nick Rose