They remembered what happened last year. In the 2010 season, the Buffalo Bandits finished the first half of the season with a 2-6 record. Every game was a playoff game thereafter to keep their hopes alive for a playoff berth and they barely made it with a 6-2 finish.
On Saturday night against the Toronto Rock (3-0), the Bandits (1-1) knew that they needed a win to avoid burying themselves in the standings again.
"We really wanted to set the tone early on in the season that there isn't going to be one easy game in the HSBC [Arena] this year," said forward Brenden Thenhaus.
The Bandits certainly did just that in the home opener, roaring out of the gate with three goals by forwards John Tavares, Chad Culp and Brett Bucktooth in the first two minutes of the game. However, in lacrosse, no lead is ever safe, and the Rock showed why they are first in the NLL Power Rankings. Supported by some big saves, Toronto settled in and worked on a Buffalo defense that grew comfortably soft with the early offensive explosion, and tied the game eight minutes later.
The Rock, led by forward Colin Doyle, continued to control the game and the scoreboard, working on the Bandits' defense late in the first quarter and into the second. They were bailed out by goaltender Mike Thompson, who made some big saves, and forwards Tom Montour and Brenden Thenhaus, who put the ball in the net and kept the game close. The defense eventually made a big stop, which set up forward Bucktooth with a breakaway that he finished, tying the score at seven.
The Bandits regained some of the energy they had early in the first quarter, and went on to take a 9-8 lead at the half with goals by Kyle Clancy and Roger Vyse.
Aided by a more coordinated and aggressive defense, the Bandits dominated in the third quarter, shutting out the Rock while tallying three goals. Forwards Vyse, Frank Resetarits and Tavares built the four-goal lead within the first five minutes of the second half, and Buffalo continued to force Toronto's hand when they invaded Buffalo territory for the duration of the quarter.
"We just made a couple of small adjustments. We had a good talk about it at halftime and I thought they really did a good job of executing the changes in the third quarter," head coach Darris Kilgour said.
However, the Bandits were too conservative in protecting the lead in the final quarter. The high-octane Toronto offense kept pressing and tied the game at 13 late in the quarter.
NLL all-time leading scorer Tavares rescued Buffalo from the five unanswered Toronto goals with a spectacular individual effort. Standing behind the net, Tavares leapt out to the side of the net (setting a foot in the crease would cancel the goal), stuck his stick out and slammed it in over goaltender Pat Campbell's far shoulder. The Bandits almost held onto the lead with several good stops by Thompson in the final minute, but Toronto's Stephen Leblanc buried a chance off of a back-door pass with 10 seconds remaining.
In overtime, Campbell made several great stops for the Rock and the defense held strong for the Bandits. Eventually, a Toronto turnover led to a breakaway for defensemen Scott Self, who buried the shot low to give the Bandits the victory.
Buffalo (2-1) is going to need a similar effort on Saturday when they go north of the border for a rematch with Toronto (3-1). They need contributions from the entire team and resiliency to battle through adversity.
Hamburg native Resetarits embodied these ideals in the overtime victory lastSaturday. He had a rough first quarter, getting robbed on point-blank opportunities twice and was then beaten by forward Garrett Billings on the third Toronto goal. Nevertheless, he made a great play in the third quarter to build the Buffalo lead. It had looked like Toronto was going to gain possession and so he headed off on a change. However, he had the awareness to notice that the Bandits had actually forced a turnover. Resetarits snuck into the slot unnoticed, received the feed from Mark Steenhuis and buried the opportunity.
With all-star goaltender Ken Montour and all-star defensemen Billy Dee Smith out for the season due to injuries, the Bandits are going to need contributions like Resetarits' from the entire roster for a successful playoff run. As this close game showed, every little bit is crucial.
Derik Wagner is a senior at Canisius High School.