The Buffalo Bandits are starting the season off with a win after defeating the San Diego Seals 13-10 in front of the hometown fans. The game was certainly a tale of two halves, the first being a slower offensive game as it ended tied 4-4 before teams worked out their kinks and started putting balls in the back of the net. Buffalo at times in the second half seemed to be just a short goal run away from taking the game handedly, but the Seals kept firing back until the final moments.
“It was like it came down to a five minute game, then a three minute game, then a one minute game,” said Bandits head coach John Tavares on just how close this game was. “We were fortunate enough to score a couple goals there in the end to make it 13-10.”
Last year’s team leading scorer Corey Small got things started for the night as he fired a shot past Seals netminder Frank Scigliano just over a minute into the first quarter. For Small, it would be the start of a great offensive outing that saw him put up a total of three goals on the night and add on two additional assists.
“Obviously my job on this team is to score goals, but I think what’s important for us is to be an unpredictable offense,” said Small. “We draw up plays and sometimes you’re just fortunate to be the open guy on the backend.”
And unpredictable that offense was. Not only was Small putting up big numbers, but Dhane Smith (3g,3a), Dallas Bridle (1g,4a), Josh Byrne (1g,3a), and Chris Cloutier (3g,2a) all had great nights on the front end. Cloutier in particular seems to have stepped up his game from last year. The former first round pick from Kitchner, ON is playing a much more physical game on offense, while also showing off his scoring prowess. That’s something many thought might have been missing after the team lost Jordan Durston to the expansion draft.
“Durston did a great job of getting all the dirty work,” said Small. “But Chris [Cloutier] was incredible tonight, and no knock to Durston, but Chris might have more of an offensive finish around the net. He got to those greasy areas and got some big loose balls for us, and all his goals he was right on top of the crease fighting through checks. If he can play like that game in and game out he’s going to have a great year, and we’re going to have a successful year.”
For Cloutier, improving his playing style and physical fitness was on the top of his off-season list.
“Last year it’s no surprise that my Achilles heel was my weight and my physique,” said Cloutier. “So this summer I was pretty determined to work on that all summer, and guys like Dhane [Smith], and Josh [Byrne] really pushed me to get into the gym and focus on lacrosse.”
Buffalo ended the first quarter with a 3-1 lead over the Seals, with Small and Cloutier scoring, as well as Dallas Bridle getting his first career NLL goal. Buffalo-native and San Diego forward Connor Fields was able to sneak one past Matt Vinc with an outside lefty shot to put the Seals on the board.
From there on out the San Diego offense just seemed stagnate up until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. There were long periods of time where forwards were too bunched up while in the Buffalo zone, making passes easy prey for Buffalo defenders to pick off. Constant movement and cycling is key to creating scoring opportunities in box lacrosse. But, this is a team that is missing key parts of its offense like Austin Staats, Casey Jackson, and Dan Dawson, and this night it showed.
The finals minutes were no doubt a nail biting affair. Zack Greer (2g,3a), and Jeremy Noble (2g,1a) were able to bury some well timed goals past Vinc that seemed to rally the Seals offense. They put the pressure on Buffalo after Connor Kearnen got a game tying goal following a few costly turnovers by the Bandits.
In what seemed like a make or break moment with Buffalo up by just one goal, San Diego got a final lengthy offensive possession with around two minutes to play. They peppered what had to be around six or seven shots on Vinc, getting rebound after rebound.
“They had the extra guy so it was six on five and we were in a zone defense,” said Bandits captain Steve Priolo. “It got scrambly off the rebounds, I was the middle guy and I couldn’t get back high to my position because I didn’t want to vacate the crease. So I was just trying to stay there far side and try and soak a shot. Our rotations, our slides, and our movement on that one was just scramble ball. The work ethic of our boys today was just unprecedented.”
The Seals just couldn’t find the back of the net however, and pretty soon Buffalo scooped up the ball and Dhane Smith buried an empty net goal to seal San Diego’s fate.
San Diego will face another North Division team next when they face the Toronto Rock at home. For Buffalo, they now go into a two week break on a winning note, their next matchup not happening until December 28th when they welcome the Halifax Thunderbirds to the Key Bank Center.