The Buffalo Bandits snapped an eight-game losing streak when it mattered most by defeating the Toronto Rock in the first round of the playoffs with a 15-13 road win before a crowd of 7,867 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
With their win in the single-elimination East Division Semifinal, Buffalo has advanced to the East Finals series against the back-to-back NLL defending champion Rochester Knighthawks.
Bandits forward Ryan Benesch put up seven goals and 10 points (7+3) in the winning effort – the team's first in nine games – to help lift Buffalo past the Rock, earning them a series against the Knighthawks for the East crown.
“The playoffs is a new season, everyone starts zero and zero,” said Benesch, who scored a season-high seven goals on the night. “We came in with a game plan and when we stick to the game plan, good things happen.”
Goal scoring, which has proved to be elusive at times, came in spades for Buffalo on Saturday night. Not far removed from recording an a regular season all-time low four goals against the Knighthawks, the Bandits turned the tide and put up their second highest goal total of the season (the highest coming in their 16-9 win over the Colorado Mammoth on January 18).
“I saw a big gorilla jump off our back and run out the door,” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley with a satisfied smile. “I’m just real happy for our guys. We just kept believing and we did what we needed to do.”
Benesch and Mark Steenhuis, Buffalo's top point getters on the night, combined for 23 shots on goal.
“I credit the offence, we moved the ball, we moved our feet,” Benesch said.
Beyond earning the chance to play Rochester for the East Division title, the win on Saturday staved off what would have been a calamitous end to the 2014 season. After starting the year with a division best 8-2 record, the Bandits fell eight times in a row dropping them to third place in the division.
“At the beginning of the year, no one believed in us and counted us out, especially after last year’s season,” said Bandits captain John Tavares, who is in his 23rd NLL season at an incredible 45 years old. “We went on that huge slide and I feel that this is a new beginning for us again… I’m a sports fan, I like rooting for the underdog. I like being the underdog.”
Buffalo's Andrew Watt opened the game's scoring 3:31 after the opening whistle. Both teams traded chances before Rock captain Colin Doyle broke a 4:59 silence to tie things up at one goal a piece. Buffalo answered strongly by going on a 3-0 run, which included goals from Benesch (2) and Shawn Williams. With under a minute remaining in the quarter, Kasey Beirnes scored in the slot pulling the Rock within a 4-2 score heading into the second frame.
Buffalo forwards Steenhuis and Jamie Rooney sandwiched a Josh Sanderson goal to go ahead 6-3 just under five minutes into the second frame. Toronto climbed back by scoring three straight goals, two of which from the stick of Doyle who completed one of two hat tricks in the half. The other was earned by Benesch who scored his third and fourth tallies of the night as part of a 2-1 mini-run to close the quarter.
Buffalo led 8-7 at halftime but Toronto took their first lead of the night after Beirnes and Sanderson each scored early in the second half. Benesch, 4:20 after the Sanderson goal, tied the game at nine goals a piece. Rock rookie Nick Diachenko put Toronto back on top at the 12:27 mark only to be quickly answered by Benesch's sixth tally of the night.
Tavares broke a 10-10 tie just 33 seconds into the final frame. The goal was part of what eventually became a 5-3 Buffalo run over the fourth frame.
The loss for Toronto puts an end to an ambivalent season to say the least. Immediately following a stretch in which the Rock won just two of seven games, Toronto won four-straight earning them the opportunity to play round one of the playoffs on home floor.
“We went on a heck of a run to position ourselves to win and advance,” said Doyle.
But Toronto's defence, a clear strength over the last four weeks, completely fell apart when it mattered most. The 15 goals given up on Saturday is the most since March 15 when they surrendered 17 against Rochester.
“We can't win a lacrosse game giving up 15 goals,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “Our defence was horrendous, it was awful. Every time we got close, or even got ahead, we just gave them an easy goal. Buffalo didn't have to work for anything.”
Mid-season acquisition Brandon Miller got the call in net for the Rock and floundered for the first time since joining the club on March 19. Miller allowed 15 goals on 57 shots for a season-low .737 save percentage.
“I didn't like my game,” said Miller. “I point the finger at myself and look in the mirror a little bit. We don't often give up 15 goals.”
Benesch led all shooters with ten points (7+3) on the night. Steenhuis, not far behind, followed up with six points (1+5) in the victory.
Doyle led the way for the Rock scoring eight points (3+5) in the losing effort. Hellyer followed up with seven points (1+6).
Buffalo goalie Anthony Cosmo made 41 saves on 54 Rock shots for a .759 save percentage en route to his first career playoff win in eight tires. Miller meanwhile, drops to 0-4 all-time in the postseason.
The win must have been extra special for Cordingley, who was let go by the Rock this past offseason despite winning 2013 NLL Head Coach of the Year, and he gave an emotional pregame speech.
“During his pregame speech, Troy was wearing JT’s jersey,” Benesch told the assembled media after the victory. “He said JT deserves to come back home and play in front of our fans at least one more time. I’m glad that we got him that win.”
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Ryan Benesch
2) Kasey Beirnes
3) Anthony Cosmo
Buffalo Bandits will play East Division Finals against Rochester Knighthawks starting in Buffalo with Game One at First Niagara Center on Saturday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The series moves to Rochester for Game Two on Saturday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET.