The Buffalo Bandits have a date with destiny this Saturday, and destiny’s name is the Albany FireWolves. The Bandits, the NLL’s top seed heading into the Chase For the Championship, will face, perhaps, their biggest obstacle in the quarterfinals.
Referring to destiny in a quarterfinal? Maybe overly dramatic for this stage?
Not when it’s a one-and-done situation and anything can happen. It’s win or go home. The Bandits, who have been primed for a championship run all season, aren’t infallible, and they know that. They’re the best team in the league, to be sure, but they’re heading into the playoffs on a low note after losing 10-7 to the Toronto Rock this past Saturday night, putting their regular season record at 14-4.
That ties their franchise record for wins from 2019, a year they made it to the NLL Finals but lost to the Calgary Roughnecks. There had been much hope that this year would set a new record.
“I wish it was 15-3,” said head coach John Tavares. “But like I told the guys, be proud of your regular season.”
Be proud, but move on, was the message.
“We need to turn the page quickly here. It was a missed opportunity and no one’s going to remember we were 14-4. It’s what happens in the playoffs that you remember.”
Putting aside Albany and any future opponents, whether it be their rivals in Toronto or an eventual rematch with Calgary, captain Steve Priolo said the Bandits’ biggest opponent will be themselves this postseason.
On Saturday, Buffalo led Toronto 5-1 at halftime but let the Rock score six unanswered goals in the fourth quarter. That’s generally atypical of a strong defensive core, but it brought the Bandits’ last month of the regular season to a close with a 1-3 record.
“These streaks that we let teams go on, where we have breakdowns of five or six minutes, have really hurt us,” he said. “Mostly our offense has been able to bail us out and give us time on defense to address those issues. We just happened to lose to Toronto twice, we lost to the Riptide who did the same to us, and Colorado. We go on these streaks where we get a little bit panicky, maybe.”
Their three April losses came as they were trying to secure a home playoff game. It took them three tries: they lost to Colorado 15-14 on April 2 and then to New York 15-12 on April 9. It was an 18-9 win over Georgia that finally secured them not only a home Quarterfinal game, but also home floor advantage throughout the playoffs as the league’s number one overall seed.
It was surprising it took Buffalo so long to confirm their top status considering just how solid the team had been until that point. Their only loss in their first 13 games came against Toronto on February 12th. Earlier in the season Buffalo was far and away the top team, but the Rock kept winning, too, and ended up right behind them at 13-5.
“Our mood is good. It’s positive, energetic and focused,” said Bandits’ rookie defenseman Jordan Stouros. “Getting that home playoff game was all a part of the process, but for us the goal isn’t just [home-floor advantage], it’s going all the way. We don’t have a plan to stop.”
Chasing a championship in his first year in the league is something Stouros is used to. As a rookie with the MSL’s Peterborough Lakers in 2019, he won the Mann Cup Canadian national championship. He was part of three long, gruelling playoff series to capture that title. That experience brought a little extra pedigree to Buffalo than you might expect from a rookie.
Fellow Bandits Matt Vinc, Kyle Buchanan, Nick Weiss and Bryce Sweeting were part of that team, too.
As a rookie Stouros made it into 10 regular season games for the Bandits, scooping up 24 loose balls and causing six turnovers.
“I’m looking forward to any opportunities I get, and to be there for my teammates, whether that is on the floor or off of it,” he said. “We have an incredible group of guys that I can learn from and have been learning from this whole season. Playoffs are a whole new animal and everyone has the opportunity to win so we have to control what we can control.”
Having previous relationships with several members of the squad, and the closeness of the team as a whole, made the transition to the professional ranks an easy one for the Ottawa native.
“There have been a lot of veterans who have helped me this year,” Stouros said. “You learn different tricks, and different ideas that you only get from experience… As a collective group on the defensive end I’ve learned that trusting your teammates and knowing they have your back has been most helpful.”
Like the Bandits, the FireWolves are “pretty deep with a group that has been together for a while,” said forward Kyle Buchanan, who scored a hat trick against Toronto. “They trust each other a lot and they want to work really hard so we have to match and then exceed that… We had two good games with them (this season), we snuck out a couple wins and we’re going to be ready for them.”
The FireWolves had a shaky start in Albany but finished with a respectable 9-9 record, going 3-0 in April. They got the wins exactly when they needed them. The Bandits cannot underestimate them.
“Albany is a great team. They’re coming into our building thinking they’re going to win, just like Toronto thought that, and they beat us,” Tavares cautioned. “You don’t want to go in too comfortable.”
“It’s funny, the one and done; anything can happen,” said Buchanan. “One bad quirk and you don’t stop the bleeding and [it’s over].”
Preparation is the Bandits’ best chance to advance to the semifinals.
“If someone’s checking tape and watching what we did in transition or how they stopped certain shots or got in lanes [against Toronto], we gotta be ready for that,” Buchanan pointed out. “Teams are going to adjust, especially knowing our record and our strategies so we have to be ready for that.”
Priolo knows that Albany’s offense, featuring Joe Resetarits and his 111 points, will capitalize on every opportunity they’re given.
“They move very quickly off ball and they are a very talented team,” he acknowledged. “They want to push the ball and play at a fast pace and that fits with us. Resetarits is their big gun and we’ve seen a lot of video on him. We know Ryan Benesch pretty well. He’s always a threat. You always need to know where he is. If he gets time and space he’s going to pick his corners.”
It’ll be on Dhane Smith to counter anything Resetarits does on the score sheet. Smith finished first in league scoring to Resetarits’ third, at 135 points compared to 111. Resetarits tied for the league lead in goals (47) with Tom Schreiber and Lyle Thompson, while Smith led in assists (94), as the Bandits boasted a more balanced attack. Smith was held pointless against Toronto, the only time all season he failed to register at least four points in a game this season.
Matt Vinc led the league in wins (14), saves (747) and save percentage (.807), and saw more rubber than anyone other goaltender save for Christian Del Bianco. He played all but 18 minutes and was only replaced twice – only one of those was during a loss, the other was just to give him a well-earned rest. He finished third in GAA at 10.18. Doug Jamieson’s stats are similar: A .787 save percentage and a 10.34 GAA. Where Vinc wins is in experience, but both goaltenders will be relying on the men in front of them to let them see the shots they want and are prepared to stop.
A playoff game in Banditland is a dream come true for the team, not to mention the fans, who are hungry for a return to the finals. Keybank Center can barely contain the emotions that explode out during intense moments.
The veterans on the Bandits are used to it, but it’ll be a new experience for Stouros, who is looking forward to feeding off the energy the fans bring to the building.
“I think I can speak for all of us that we thrive off of the fans in Buffalo,” he said. “I haven’t been around long in Buffalo but I would say Banditland is the best crowd to play in front of. I wouldn’t want to hear their boos. I’m blessed to be on the home side.”
So, we’re in for a dramatic quarterfinal. A one game, winner advances and keeps their championship dream alive. The Bandits’ rookies and veterans are spending the week preparing for the biggest game of the season.
Tavares said nobody will remember the 14-4 record. In time, they’d forget about a quarterfinal loss, too. But everybody will remember a playoff win, especially if it leads to another, and then another, and then a championship, and that’s what Banditland wants.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, May 7th. If you’re not lucky enough to be in the crowd in person, you can catch the game on ESPN+ and TSN.ca.