TORONTO — Buffalo Bandits coach Troy Cordingley reached into his bag of motivational tricks in his pregame speech before Saturday’s first round playoff game with the Toronto Rock.
“He came out wearing” John Tavares’ “jersey and said he wanted the win so that JT could come back and play in front of his home fans one more time,” Ryan Benesch said.
The Bandits advanced to the East final of the National Lacrosse League playoffs by defeating the Rock, 15-13, before 7,867 in the Air Canada Centre. The victory meant that Buffalo will host Rochester in the opening game of the East final. That game will be played next Saturday night at the First Niagara Center.
The Bandits had lost their last eight games of the regular season, a streak that did not fill many with confidence that they could win a playoff game – particularly away from home. They played with poise and confidence in earning that victory.
“We answered our critics, and we answered ourselves. It’s more important that we answered ourselves. We found a way to win,” Cordingley said.
“That was a big gorilla that jumped off our backs.”
One of the major reasons for the disappearance of that beast was the play of Benesch, who turned in one of the greatest performances in Bandits’ playoff history. Benesch tied a record for goals in a game with seven, previously held only by Mark Steenhuis (2008). “I have to credit the rest of the offense,” said Benesch who also had three assists to finish with 10 points. “They gave me some lanes to shoot. … It was me that got the shots, but it could have been anyone.”
“He was unbelievable. Benny had such a great game,” Tavares added. “He’s a natural scorer.”
Benesch had plenty of help in Buffalo’s first win since March 15. Buffalo got off to a good start, leading 4-1 late in the first quarter. That probably gave the team a little confidence, and the Bandits stayed ahead for most of the first three quarters.
Still, the Rock fought back to tie the game at 10-10, and even the positive thinkers in the Bandits’ roster must have at least briefly wondered if they would find a way to let this one get away.
Instead, it was Tavares — who has not announced anything about this plans for next season — to the rescue. His power-play goal with 33 seconds gone in the fourth quarter gave Buffalo the lead for good. Dhane Smith followed by stuffing home a loose ball less than a minute later to make it a two-goal lead. That seemed to take some of the steam out of Toronto, which couldn’t get closer than one back the rest of the way.
Tavares added the last bit of insurance with a power-play goal with 3:10 to go. “We had a perfect angle from the bench to see that shot,” Cordingley said. “There was not much space there. It was an unbelievable shot.”
Meanwhile, the Bandits defense turned in a strong game, particularly when it mattered. For example, Colin Doyle had three goals for the Rock, but all of them came in the first half.
“We thought Doyle was one of the best players out there, and I wanted my defense to get up on him more,” goalie Anthony Cosmo said.
Still, Doyle finished with eight points, and Rob Hellyer added seven (one goal, six assists). But Stephan Leblanc, one of the league’s top scorers in the regular season, didn’t score a goal in the playoff opener.
The Bandits ran out the last few minutes to claim their first playoff victory in three years. Tavares knew it would have been a long, long offseason had Buffalo finished with one last loss.
“I didn’t think it could get worse than it was last year, but we sort of paralleled last year’s season,” he said. “But we got enough wins to sneak into the playoffs, and we were fortunate to win this one.”
Steenhuis added one goal and five assists for the Bandits. Cosmo finished with 41 saves on 54 shots.
And Cordingley earned a sweet win in the playoffs over a team that relieved him of his duties a year ago, even though he took the high road after the game as he has done all season long.
“There are character guys in that room, and I know what they are going through,” the Buffalo coach said about the Toronto team. “But I’m really happy for our guys.”