Mark Steenhuis is playing like it’s 2009, and so are the Buffalo Bandits.
That’s probably not a coincidence.
The Bandits continued their impressive start on Saturday night, defeating the Toronto Rock, 12-10. The 12,768 in the First Niagara Center watched a bruising, chippy game that eventually resulted in the Bandits’ fifth straight win.
That’s the longest win streak by Buffalo since, yes, 2009, when the Bandits won their first five games on their way to a 10-6 season. Steenhuis had the best season of his career then, scoring 51 goals and 50 assists.
The forward on Saturday looked like the 2009 version of himself in scoring four goals with two assists.
“I thought Mark Steenhuis was just sensational tonight, just with his ball control,” Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said. “He was feeding guys, and then got shots he could bury.”
One of Cordingley’s biggest moves when he came to Buffalo for the current season was to make Steenhuis a full-time offensive player again. He had spent the past couple of seasons serving mostly in a transition role, but he’s starting to feel right at home up front again.
“I do feel like my confidence is growing,” Steenhuis said. “I was coming off surgery when I first came to training camp. But I’m feeling better now, and my confidence is growing.”
The forward scored the game’s biggest goal. It broke a 9-9 tie with 8:55 left, and the Bandits never looked back from there.
This was a long, difficult game for both sides, featuring 19 power plays and plenty of pushing and shoving. In another words, it was a typical meeting between two old rivals.
“We earned it, that’s for sure,” Cordingley said. “That was a very intense, physical game. That’s the East Division, right? You’re battling for every inch. I was real proud of our guys. We took a couple of dumb penalties, but I was happy that when we had a little adversity we stuck to the plan. We did the things we needed to do to be successful.”
Steenhuis obviously did some of those things, but he had plenty of help on both ends of the field. On offense, Ryan Benesch had a hat trick, John Tavares had two goals and two assists, and Dhane Smith added five assists.
“We stress that,” Cordingley said. “It’s a five-man unit, and we don’t care who is going to score the goals. We have to work for each other to create those scoring opportunities. There were some real nice goals tonight.”
One of the reasons behind that is that Buffalo has changed its approach offensively from past seasons, and it seems to be working.
“We got the system in place where we are working off the ball more than last year,” Steenhuis said. “In the past, we primarily ran a one-on-one. We’re using the whole floor now.”
Meanwhile, the defense was strong when it had to be. Toronto only had one run, a three-goal burst to start the second half that gave the Rock the lead. Otherwise, the Bandits did a good job of keeping the Toronto offense under control, no small task.
Some of the credit should go to a tough Buffalo defensive unit, which was led by Rory Smith.
“I’ve coached a couple of teams over the years, and nobody is tougher than Rory,” Cordingley said. “At one point he took a shot in the throat, got up and went back to work.”
Billy Dee Smith added, “Rory is like another goalie out there, the way he blocks shots. ”
When all else failed, Anthony Cosmo was there in the Bandits’ goal. He was particularly brilliant during the crucial fourth quarter, when he held Toronto off the scoreboard for two seconds less than 10 minutes. Buffalo scored three goals in that span to take control.
Cosmo says he couldn’t have planned it any better.
“It’s all about the timing,” he said. “Our defense then holds them, and then we go down and bury them. We can’t have one-for-one trades. We have to capitalize when we hold them.”
By the end of the night, the Bandits’ fans were chanting Cosmo’s name in tribute.
“It’s nice to be on the right side of that,” the goalie said with a laugh. “I’ve come in here on the other side, and those chants were usually against me.”
The Bandits find themselves leading the NLL East with a 5-1 record. Billy Dee Smith believes his team is for real.
“I think we’re getting a little bit of confidence, but people still kind of doubt us. I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “We believe in each other, and in our room, and that’s all the matters.”
Buffalo’s next test comes next Saturday, when the team plays in Rochester against the Knighthawks.