The Buffalo Bandits continued their rebound by swiping Game One of the East Division Finals with a 12-8 home win over the two-time defending champion Rochester Knighthawks at First Niagara Center on Saturday night.
After closing the regular season with eight-straight losses, Buffalo has turned it around at the right time winning its first two playoff games.
Trailing 8-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Bandits took complete control scoring five even-strength goals in a 3:30 span.
The five-goal run, bookended by goals from the legendary John Tavares, who finished with six points (4+2), was just what the doctor ordered for the Bandits after being shut out in the third quarter.
“It was a great win. We’re huge underdogs obviously, playing against the back-to-back champions,” Tavares said. “So we gave ourselves an opportunity to win it in Rochester [next week] and that’s all we can do right now. I think we’re still underdogs.”
Anthony Cosmo had several key saves down the stretch, finishing the game with 36 saves on 44 shots.
“He’s an elite goalie in this league and he has been for some time,” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley of his net minder. “He makes those saves when we need him.”
This was the first of a two-game series to determine the East Division champion. They teams meet again next week in Rochester on Saturday May 17 at 7:30pm ET. If Rochester wins that game, they will play a 10-minute mini-game to determine the series winner.
“The win doesn’t really mean anything,” Tavares said. “We need to go into Rochester and we have two cracks at it: the full game and a 10-minute game.”
Tavares’ four goals were the most he’s scored in a playoff game since 2003 when he put up that same number against Calgary.
Tavares tied the game at eight with a rocket shot from ‘his office’ on the left side of the offence with 6:10 to play and the offense just poured it on from there.
“He’s incredible. He’s a big-time player in big-time moments,” Cosmo said of his captain. “That last goal, top-cheese short side, he’s incredible. I’m so glad to be part of watching what he brings and what he’s done for this league.”
But that wasn’t Tavares’ best goal of the night. Midway through the second quarter Tavares scored a goal-of-the-year candidate marker, going airborne behind Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc and burying it one-handed back to the far post.
“I’m amazed that a 45-year-old man can score from one step behind the net, top-shelf far side with a man draped all over him,” Cordingley marveled. “To be honest, I’m comparing it to myself getting out of bed. I’m telling you, it’s pretty amazing.”
Click here to see Tavares’ incredible goal which was featured on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays.
Buffalo was led by Mark Steenhuis’ seven points (4+3), as well as second-year transition player Dhane Smith’s five points (3+2), including the game winner and an insurance tally 59 seconds apart.
The loss snapped Rochester’s six-game playoff winning streak, having won the past two Champion’s Cups, and Matt Vinc’s first playoff loss since May 1, 2011 at Toronto and only his second overall as a member of the Knighthawks.
“They did a good job, they were pushing the ball well and I think we got on our heels and we gave them a bit too much respect and let them do what they wanted to do,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen.
This was the second time in as many games that the Bandits found themselves in a tie game in the fourth quarter, and the second time that they put the foot on the gas and put their opponents away.
“When we’ve been winning, we’ve been winning fourth quarters,” Cosmo said. “These past two games we came alive in the fourth quarter. Somehow they keep it close, or we keep it close, and the fourth quarter is where we pull ahead.”
Leading the Rochester offense with five points (2+3), forward Dan Dawson admitted that his team didn’t play its best in the late stages of the game.
“They closed it out, and obviously we didn’t. They know how to close out games,” the 13-year NLL veteran said. “I thought both teams were playing even keel for 50 [minutes] and they ran away with it at the end.”
The first half was played at a feverish pace, with the teams trading multiple-goal runs.
Steenhuis opened the scoring with two goals in a 24-second span less than two minutes into the game, sending the home crowd into an early frenzy.
After nearly eight minutes of scoreless, but back and forth lacrosse, Rochester stormed back with a four-goal run spanning the first and second quarters.
“It seemed like there were mini-runs both ways. We’d go up by two, they’d go up by two, back and forth,” Tavares said.
During Rochester’s run and the scoring lull that preceded it, the Bandits offense was struggling mightily to find its rhythm and get into the middle of the floor for quality scoring chances. That is until Chad Culp, who has spent most of the season on the defensive end of the floor, created his own space with an excellent low dodge, sending a side-arm shot back to the near post to beat Vinc.
“[That goal] was very important,” Cordingley said. “Chad is a big part of our team and we’re comfortable with him playing at both ends. He’s a player.”
Culp is officially listed as a forward, but he has spent most of the season coming out the back door and moving the ball up in transition. In the Bandits recent games, however, Culp has seen more time on the offensive left side, setting picks and successfully freeing up scores like Tavares and Ryan Benesch.
“He’s a great hustler, he’s someone we need on the left side,” Tavares said. “Me, Shawn [Williams], Benesch, we’re all kind of the same player, so it’s nice having a guy in there setting some picks, getting some loose balls, creating some second chances, scoring the odd goal and just bringing some energy to the left side.”
Culp’s goal sparked the Bandits to go on a four-goal run of their own, highlighted by Tavares’ second goal of the game, an incredible one-handed ‘Air-Gait’ slam dunk from behind the net. The 45-year-old’s highlight-reel tally sent the home crowd into a frenzy once again.
The Bandits defense put forth an outstanding effort throughout the game, holding the potent Rochester offense to just eight goals, and only one in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense are pounding these guys; I wouldn’t want to be any of the offensive players on the other end,” Cosmo said with a smile. “It’s taxing and by the fourth quarter, we wear them down and we push a little harder and lean a little harder on them and this is the result we get.
“There were six or seven blocked shots in that fourth quarter; one of those go in and that’s the game swing.”
But Buffalo has more work to do in the new playoff format, something of which both teams are keenly aware.
“That’s the good thing about this [new] playoff series for us this year is that we’ve got another chance at it next week,” Hasen said.
“The great thing is we’ve got a chance to redeem ourselves at home, we’ve worked hard all year for that,” Dawson added.
Cordingley too knows what’s at stake next week.
“We know we’re going to their barn and they’re a pretty decent team, they’re the defending champs so we know we have our work cut out for us,” he said. “I hate to be cliché, but we have to bring our 'A' game.”
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) John Tavares
2) Mark Steenhuis
3) Dhane Smith
Buffalo travels to Rochester for Game Two next Saturday at Blue Cross Arena at 7:30 p.m. ET. If the Bandits win, they advance to the NLL Championship series. With a Knighthawks win, the two teams will play a 10-minute mini-game immediately following Game Two to decide the series winner.