If the Buffalo Bandits were hoping to start a successful stretch drive on Saturday night, they probably needed a different opponent.
The Saskatchewan Rush simply refused to cooperate.
The Rush took a 17-14 decision from the Bandits before 16,419 at the KeyBank Center. It was Buffalo’s second straight loss, dropping the team’s record to 5-8.
“They’re the defending champions,” Craig England of the Bandits said about Saskatchewan. “They won it all last year. That’s who you want to compare yourself to.”
The victory clinched a playoff spot for the Rush, as they improved to 9-4. Saskatchewan is the first team in the National Lacrosse League to wrap up a ticket to the postseason.
There was plenty of talk last week about how the Bandits failed to play a complete game in the loss to Rochester. The same sort of issue proved costly this time around, except that it came much earlier.
After giving up the first two goals of the game within the first two minutes, the Rush offense clicked. Seven different players scored for Saskatchewan in a 7-1 run for a 7-3 lead early in the second period. No one knew it at the time, but that stretch was decisive in determining the outcome.
“I thought defensively we were mediocre,” Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said. “They exposed us on a few things. We talked about it, and those things can kill you.”
“It seemed like we were going good there, but they’ve got a good team,” England said. “They’ve got some key players on that team. It was tough, because we let them back into it.”
That Saskatchewan burst led to a change in goalies, as Anthony Cosmo exited in favor of Dave DiRuscio. It was the fifth such midgame switch in netminders this season, and only one was because of an injury.
Cosmo wasn’t particularly sharp in the early going, but he didn’t have much help in front of him.
“We tried to wake up the bench,” Cordingley said about the reason for the switch. “We were pretty bad defensively, and sometimes that helps.”
This time it didn’t. The Rush scored 10 goals in the first 24 minutes of the half, their largest first-half production of the season. The teams traded runs from that point through the third quarter, and Buffalo’s situation hadn’t improved. The Bandits trailed, 13-8, late in the third quarter.
What was needed was a run that could get Buffalo back in the game. The Bandits got such a run from some unexpected sources. Nick Weiss and England had two goals and Alex Kedoh Hill had one during a 5-1 burst over the span of eight minutes.
“We had some brain cramps out there, but Craig and Nick just kept grinding it out,” Cordingley said. “Nick had a highlight goal” - a stuff shot from behind the net that brought back memories of John Tavares’ signature move - “and England is no polish but all grit.”
With the lead down to 14-13 with about eight minutes to go, Saskatchewan responded like a defending champion. Mark Matthews, who was on his way to a nine-point game, calmly scored. Rookie Ryan Keenan followed with the second of his three goals, and the Rush was back in charge the rest of the way.
“The little details in the end are important,” Weiss said. “We can’t have the little mistakes at the end against a team like that. They got timely goals whenever we got momentum. That’s when you have to put the foot down and keep the gas on.”
The game boiled over a bit at the end. Billy Dee Smith displayed some frustration when he took a high-sticking major and a 10-minute misconduct. That made him the NLL’s all-time leader in career penalty minutes, passing Kyle Laverty.
“I don’t like the way the league is going,” Smith said. “When the league was at its prime in 2007 there was a war every night. It was physical. There were fights. Now when you bump a guy, it’s his ball. I think they are going the wrong way about it. … I think if they went back and let more go, fans would like it more. We’d grow the game better and quicker. Now it’s a power-play and man-short league, and no one wants to see power plays all night.”
Dhane Smith finished with seven points for Buffalo, while Ryan Benesch added five points and Mark Steenhuis added four.
The Bandits are still in a three-team fight for the last playoff spot in the East, but they don’t play either of their rivals – New England and Rochester – the rest of the way. The Knighthawks helped the Buffalo cause with a loss on Saturday night, while New England takes on Toronto today.
Still, it’s a tough spot.
“We’ve been here for a while,” Cordingley said “We’ve got five games left. We still hold our own destiny. But we have to play 60 minutes instead of five here and five there.”