In the end, it was more than a game for every single person at Keybank Center on Sunday evening. The game itself was the medicine as the city of Buffalo came together after a terrible tragedy to cheer on their Bandits and heal together.
“It was with heavy hearts we played the game,” said Bandits’ Head Coach John Tavares. “It was great to get a win for the crowd; it was great to win on this weekend in terms of the tragedy yesterday. It was tough to combine the two in the change room, talking about what happened and talking about lacrosse. When you look at the big picture in life, lacrosse is a very small part. There was a lot of talk in our room about playing for the community and doing what little we can to try to change things.”
The Bandits took game one of the East Conference Final 18-17 over the Toronto Rock to lead the best-of-three series 1-0. Overtime wasn’t required, but by the fourth quarter, every goal felt like the biggest of the night. Eleven goals were scored in the final quarter alone, keeping the crowd of 10,258 on the edge of their seats.
“Tehoka Nanticoke talked about this being a medicine game,” said Josh Byrne. “In such a time where it feels not right to play, to see Banditland come out and support, having everyone come together and heal each other, it was a special feeling. It’s an incredible thing when you can bring community together with the game of lacrosse.”
Tied at 12 headed into the fourth, Toronto scored the first two to take a 14-12 lead. Those goals capped a six-goal Rock run dating back to halfway through the third. But now it was Buffalo’s turn for a run, and they scored five in less than four minutes to suddenly lead 17-14. The run was kicked off when Kyle Buchanan scooped up a juicy rebound and went airborne to beat Nick Rose. Byrne followed that up with a pair less than a minute apart, also going airborne on his first one. Nanticoke absolutely bullied his way to the net, knocking down a defender before throwing three fakes to fool Rose. Connor Fields capped the highlight-reel run with a wraparound goal.
Toronto outscored Buffalo 3-1 in the second half of the fourth, but couldn’t find the equalizer. Tom Schreiber got them within a goal with 8.6 seconds left. TD Ierlan won the ensuing faceoff, Rob Hellyer hit the post, and Dan Craig had to put the rebound wide as Matt Vinc deftly got in his way.
“Both teams are going to go back and watch a lot of film and do their homework and try to prevent 18-17 goals against,” said Tavares. “To give up 18 and 17, both teams are going to try to prove their defense.”
Tavares put to rest any notion that Matt Vinc and Nick Rose were responsible for the high score.
“It’s easy to look at goaltending and go ‘oh, you have to have that.’ These guys are very, very accurate,” he said. “They can pick the smallest corner from a lot of different spots on the floor. When you see that ball going in, it’s usually not the goalie’s fault. When I look back at 17 goals against, they’re all good shots.”
Vinc made 41 saves and Rose 33.
It was an offensive explosion for Buffalo, who had been stymied in their previous two games, the first of which was against Toronto on April 30th to close out the regular season. But Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith were back in top form, scoring 11 and 10 points each, respectively.
“Our defense has been great the past few games while our offense was struggling,” Smith said. “The whole year people have been talking about the offense… Yes, we were putting up the numbers, but our defense is always great. You’re going to have those games were the offense breaks out and thank goodness it was tonight. Everybody showed up offensively, everyone played their role. We have a great system that [Tavares] put in place for us.”
Byrne and Hellyer exchanged goals in the first 57 seconds of the game. Ian MacKay, on transition, and Zach Manns then traded goals for a 2-2 tie just over two minutes in. Buffalo’s first run of the night consisted of three goals, the highlight of which belonged to captain Steve Priolo, who came out of the corner with the ball and capitalized on a crease dive, not a move that he’s generally known for. Toronto’s Justin Scott stung the top right corner with 1:14 left in the first to end the run, and Nick Rose came up big late with a left shoulder save on Buchanan and a kick save on Nanticoke. Buffalo led 5-3 after the first.
The Rock kicked off the second with four straight goals; two each from Manns and Schreiber to put Toronto up by two. Buffalo wrestled that lead away with five of their own. Chase Fraser kicked it off, shooting overtop of a defender. Smith tied the game at seven after ducking around Latrell Harris to get an open look at Rose.
Fraser took the lead back for Buffalo with a SportsCenter-worthy goal, accepting the behind-the-back pass from Byrne and putting it through his own legs to score. Chris Cloutier then scored a pair back-to-back as he was left all alone by the Rock’s defense and took advantage of the open lanes.
Buffalo took a 10-8 lead into the dressing room at halftime after Rock captain Challen Rogers scored with two seconds left.
“It was up and down. The emotions were high, the emotions were low. It was a roller coaster game for both teams,” said Tavares.
The Bandits increased their lead to four at 12-8 early in the third. For the second time in the game, Byrne scored 33 seconds into the quarter – he opened the first at the exact same time.
Cloutier’s hat trick goal at 5:18 required a long review by the referees after Rock head coach Matt Sawyer threw the challenge flag. At normal speed, the goal looked good, but slowed down it appeared Cloutier’s left leg might have hit the crease before the ball went in. However, the goal was ruled good due to inconclusive evidence. But it gave the Rock, down four and needing energy, an unofficial timeout.
Sawyer contended after the game the move wasn’t made for strategic reasons.
“What did you see?” he asked. “We thought it wasn’t a good goal.”
But, he is also conscious of the need to turn the Bandits’ five-goal runs into two or three-goal runs in game two.
Strategic time out or not, it worked, and the Rock rattled off the next four, peppering Matt Vinc with shots. Dan Craig shot around a defender after Rogers set up a strong pick. Manns’ fourth goal of the night was an underarm bomb from midrange. Rogers then drove to the net to score and was tackled by Priolo for his efforts. Craig tied the game at 12 after Schreiber made a heads up pass after being unable to find a shot of his own.
While Buffalo was scoring from all over the floor, including many goals in tight, a good portion of the Rock’s goals were from midrange, classic over or underhand shots that Vinc had trouble with, and it worked for them, though Sawyer acknowledged that Buffalo got the better of them in the end.
“They got a lot of tough checks and they did a real good job of putting pressure on us defensively,” he said. “We were pretty deadly tonight from midrange. We need to find a way to keep them to the outside a little more than we did tonight… and we need to do a better job limiting the quality of their offensive chances. Most nights when you score 17… well, tonight was a night when we needed 19 and we thought we could have got it.”
But Buffalo needed the win, not just because it’s the playoffs, but because they needed something to celebrate.
“This one was definitely more than a game. It’s a big thing for us to play for others who can’t, and tonight was for those victims and their families that were affected,” said Byrne. “Lacrosse is just a game at the end of the day and with everything that went on yesterday, it was tough to kind of live in the moment.”
Dhane Smith put it into context with a rare pre-game speech to his teammates.
“I’m not the type of guy to talk too much,” he said. “I’m a shy guy; I don’t like to talk about my feelings, but I did get emotional before the game regarding what happened in Buffalo,” he said. “My why is – I play lacrosse because I love it, but also because I want to show kids of colour that they can be at the top of their level and make it pro and get out of the tough neighbourhoods… You have to play your game to the best of your ability, and you don’t know when your last day could come… It wasn’t a speech to get the boys going, but it was on my chest and I felt like I had to speak up.”
Game two goes on Saturday, May 21st at 7pm ET at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton as the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN and on ESPN+. If necessary, game three will be back at Keybank Center on Saturday, May 28th at 7:30pm ET.