Buffalo Bandits finished one goal shy of the Champion's Cup Finals with their overtime loss in the East Finals. (Photo: Bill Wippert)
The roller coaster ride that has been the Buffalo Bandits 2014 season is over, but a bit prematurely if you are a fan of the black & orange.
The Bandits’ season came to an extremely dramatic close in the East Division Finals at the hands of the two-time defending champion Rochester Knighthawks on Saturday, May 17, with Buffalo falling just shy of an opportunity to win the franchise’s fifth Champion's Cup.
Not only did it take a 10-minute mini-game, the key element in the NLL’s new two-game playoff series format, but an additional sudden death overtime period to decide which team from Western New York would move on to face the Calgary Roughnecks for the NLL’s top prize.
Tied at one game apiece, the teams went into the mini-game with everything on the line. With less than five minutes to play, Buffalo-area native and off-season acquisition, Joe Resetarits struck first blood with an excellent individual effort. Fighting through the check of former Bandit Scott Self, Resetarits got himself to the middle of the floor, a difficult spot to reach against the stingy Rochester defense, and let fly a low rocket beating Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc through the five-hole.
With both goaltenders and defenses playing so well, there was a feeling that one goal might just be enough to propel the Bandits to the Finals.
On the ensuing possession, Bandits’ fans hopes leaped even higher. Buffalo defender Rory Smith, another off-season acquisition, stripped Knighthawk scoring-leader Cody Jamieson of the ball, which was quickly scooped by Derek Suddons who was off to the races with a golden opportunity to get Buffalo the insurance marker they needed.
Suddons’ shot beat Vinc cleanly, but did not beat the right post. The goal would have given the Bandits a two-goal lead with 4:05 to play.
“That’s what they say: the game is about inches, right?” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley. “If he hits that it gives us a little more breathing room…but that’s the way it goes.”
Indeed that is the way it goes, because just 1:43 later, Joel McCready tied the game with his own outstanding effort, beating Suddons with a series of dodges that got him onto the doorstep of Bandits goaltender Anthony Cosmo where he made no mistake.
Into sudden death it would go and it didn’t take very long before Cory Vitarelli ended this epic battle at the 1:56 mark of overtime, sending the Bandits home in anguished defeat.
“We were so close to beating them,” said Bandits legend John Tavares following the loss. “They ended our season last year; it seems like it’s Toronto and Rochester just taking turns [ending our season].”
“Two heavyweight teams going at it, battling inch for inch,” said Cordingley. “Credit to their team, they’re the defending champs two years in a row; it was going to take a superb effort [to beat them], which we were pretty close to doing. But we didn’t and it’s a building block and it’s an experience and a thing we have to remember, how difficult it is to win in this league.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.”
But what a wild ride it has been for those hitched to the Bandits’ wagon this year.
Coming off one of the worst years in franchise history that saw the ‘Banditos’ as the only NLL team to miss out on the playoffs in 2013, few people would have characterized the team’s expectations going into the 2014 campaign as ‘high’ by any stretch.
After opening the season 8-2, however, many pundits had the Bandits pegged as the team to beat coming out of the East.
A loss in Edmonton against the then-undefeated Rush on Mar. 21 began what would turn out to be a record-setting losing streak.
Eight losses later, Buffalo was limping into the playoffs, reputation battered and having squandered the opportunity to open the playoffs at home. Most expected the Bandits to bow out in the opening round in Toronto, leaving an ugly mark on the 2014 season.
“We could have easily just lost to Toronto and we’d be rebuilding again,” said the 45-year old Tavares.
Instead, the Bandits beat Toronto convincingly, and then did the same at home the following week against Rochester in Game 1 of the East Division Final.
“I think we could see some light at the end of the tunnel there, we do have some pretty good youth and we continue to build and develop within the organization,” Tavares opined. "That’s what you need: a good nucleus and you tweak here and there. You don’t change 10 players per year; you change two, three maybe. Those are usually the good teams; they don’t make a lot of changes they just make improvements.”
Which inevitably leads one to the annual question in ‘Banditland’: will Tavares come back for what would be his league-record 24th NLL season?
When the question of ‘where do you go from here’ was posed to Tavares following the bitter defeat in Rochester, the veteran answered succinctly:
“Rest. And rethink the season personally, talk to the organization and see how the body feels.”
It sounds all too similar to the words Tavares has spoken following season finales in recent years, which can, and perhaps should, give Bandits fans hope that the indelible face of the franchise will return for another year.
During the losing streak, there was more talk than ever before of Tavares’ potential retirement. But never were definitive words delivered.
So once again, Bandits fans, and the league as a whole, will have to wait and see if the best to ever play the game will once again take the floor.
There is no doubt that his coach, and former teammate, would very much like to see #11 back in uniform next season.
“Do I believe he can still play? Oh yeah. He’s a very smart player, the smartest player and we know what he means to our organization and what he means to the league. So that’s his decision and we have to live with it either way.
“You’re not going to replace a John Tavares.”
No, you are not.
But the Bandits have laid the necessary groundwork to contend whether the legend returns or not. Ryan Benesch, another off-season acquisition, led the team in scoring, his 78 points outpacing Mark Steenhuis’ 63 by a fair margin.
Benesch’s play this season felt quite familiar to that of Tavares; quietly racking up 53 assists while delivering pin-point accurate shots from the offensive left side at key moments.
There is no doubt that suffering through an franchise-worst eight-game losing streak was a devastating period for the club, but there are plenty of positives to take out of the 2014 season, the exemplary effort in the playoffs being the most important of them all.
After his first year as Bandits head coach, Cordingley put it best:
“There is a lot of character in that room; we never gave up on this season once…I’m real proud of our team.”