That’s what Buffalo Bandits’ fans felt when Steve Priolo hit the back of the empty net with 59 seconds left to play. It put the Bandits up 10-5, bringing to a close a tense one-and-done quarterfinal against the Albany FireWolves that was tied 2-2 at halftime. The league’s number one seed now moves on to face the Toronto Rock in the East Conference Finals.
“It was a great lacrosse game,” enthused Bandits’ head coach John Tavares. “The offense played well in the first half, we just didn’t put the ball in the net. Dougie Jamieson had a great game; both goalies had great games. Both teams had great chances to score in the first half, they just didn’t get it past the goalies.”
Indeed, Matt Vinc and Doug Jamieson were both incredible, with Vinc making 45 saves and Jamieson with 49.
But only Vinc was credited with making the save of the game, a moment both Tavares and defenseman Ian MacKay called the turning point. After Priolo was called for closing his hand on the ball in the crease, Vinc stoned Ryan Benesch on a penalty shot with a right shoulder save 5:34 into the fourth quarter. They were only leading 7-4 at that point.
“They put that in and it’s a much closer game and the crowd probably dies down a little bit,” MacKay said. “But Vinc made that save and the crowd went absolutely crazy and we were able to ride that momentum and close it out. He’s by far the best goalie in the world and he just continues to prove it each game.”
Albany did score the next goal of the game, closing the gap to 7-5, but by then there were less than five minutes remaining. Colton Watkinson took advantage of a two-on-one transition break. But as Vinc shut the door after that, Connor Fields scored an overhand bomb with 2:30 to go. The FireWolves pulled Jamieson for the extra attacker but Vinc stopped all their shot attempts, with the Bandits’ defense pouncing on the rebounds. That led to two consecutive empty net goals, with Frank Brown tallying the first and Priolo the second, wiring the ball past Benesch, who had jumped in to cover the net.
Priolo wears the C for a reason, MacKay said.
“He’s a vocal leader when he needs to be but he likes to lead by example. When he plays like he did tonight, it’s all confidence and momentum and when a guy like that is playing out of his mind it’s really easy to follow. Everyone tries to match his mentality and his play style.”
Tavares counted on Priolo to stop Joe Resetarits, and he was up to the task. Resetarits, the league’s third highest scorer, was held to a single goal.
“I thought Priolo did a wonderful job on Joe Resetarits. Joey’s been awesome all year long, but we put Stevie on him and he did a good job,” Tavares praised. “He stood out and it’s hard to stand out as a defenseman and that’s why he got the heavyweight belt tonight.”
Buffalo and Albany were tied 1-1 after the first quarter. Reilly O’Connor opened the scoring more than nine minutes into the game. Dhane Smith tied it with a bounce shot.
Resetarits’ only goal came at the 3:42 mark of the second. Albany had chances after that, including a power play opportunity when Chase Fraser caught John LaFontaine with a stick up high. Boos rained down from the 12,535 fans in attendance at Keybank Center. Vinc then made a big save on a Resetarits-O’Connor two-on-one.
MacKay tied the game at two with two minutes left in the second. Matt Spanger chopped the ball away from Andrew Kew (Kew’s stick went flying, too), scooped it up and passed it to MacKay who scored a fast-break goal.
“That was just a great pass by Spanger that hit me up there,” MacKay said. “I’ve played with [Jamieson] in the summer, and he likes to try and play mind games with you a bit. Maybe he thinks us D guys don’t have the touch like some of the O guys. I knew he was baiting me and I wanted to put it short side… it was definitely a momentum boost for the team, being such a low scoring game.
“Obviously it’s defense first but we emphasized getting some transition tonight because we pride ourselves on our transition… that helped push us over the edge.”
The pace picked up slightly in the second half, kicked off by Smith’s goal 14 seconds in. Smith bullied his way past his man to get to the goal. Josh Byrne scored an overhand blast just over a minute later. It was the first two-goal run of the game. Albany responded with Jacob Ruest sneaking a sidearm shot through traffic.
Byrne’s second tally was the goal of the game. With his back to the goal and a defender draped all over him, he faked a backwards shot to the left, then quickly moved to shoot from the right – still facing away from the net.
O’Connor got that back for Albany with a quick stick, but Connor Fields put Buffalo up 6-4 at the end of the third with a crease dive goal.
“Getting that two-goal lead definitely gave us some momentum,” said Tavares. “That helped us settle down and take control of the game. We relied on our defense and Vinc to stop them and they did a great job five-on-five,” and he noted that Albany scored just one power play goal and one transition goal.
Buffalo outscored Albany 4-1 in the fourth quarter.
Although it was 1 vs 4 heading into the quarterfinal, the Bandits knew they couldn’t underestimate the FireWolves.
“Credit to Albany and their defense and Jamieson. He’s a world class goalie and can help them win games and stay in games and that’s what he did tonight,” said MacKay. “He gave them a really good chance. We just wanted to trust the process and stay with it.”
The fans were out in force, wearing their orange and black, holding up homemade signs and cheering their heads off. They’ll be even rowdier next Sunday, May 15th when the Rock visit for game one of the East Conference Finals.
“The crowd has gotten better and better each game,” acknowledged MacKay. “This is by far the best arena to play in and the best fans to play in front of. When you can get them into the game it’s an advantage for us. They definitely helped us out and as goals started to go in it got louder and louder.”
Game two will be in Hamilton. It’s a best-of-three series, and Tavares said to expect a battle.
“Toronto is a great team. It’s going to be a great series and we’re going to focus on that first game and try to win here in Buffalo and try to maintain home floor advantage.”
Game time is 6pm ET at Keybank Center. If you can’t make it to the game, you can tune in on ESPN+ and TSN.