Buffalo Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich was likely smiling while watching his team down the Toronto Rock, 13-9, in the season opener. The product on the floor was exactly what he pitched when discussing the team during training camp.
That started with the offense, expected to be more balanced with the high-scoring additions of veterans Callum Crawford and Jordan Durston and 2017 first-overall pick Josh Byrne.
10 different Bandits found the back of the net, with Crawford, Mitch Jones and Nick Weiss each scoring twice.
“The way I look at it, that makes a more dangerous team,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “I thought the ball was moving extremely well.”
“We have so many threats,” forward Dhane Smith said. “It’s great for an offense to not know who is going to shoot. ... It’s fun to watch when we’re swinging the ball and all buy in.”
While there was no star of the offense, the star of the game was the Bandits’ recently-acquired goalie, Alex Buque. He was the busiest man of the night in his first game with the team, making 55 saves on 64 shots.
“He was a wall out there and made some unbelievable saves,” Cordingley said. “That gives confidence to everybody on the team.”
Buque showed strong lateral quickness, a trait he said he was proud of at the start of training camp. It’s impressive to watch from a 5-foot-10, 230 lbs. keeper.
“It surprises me,” Smith said. “The saves he makes, I’m like, ‘How do you even get across from there?’ He’s steady back there and it’s going to be a big part of our game.”
Buque got the start after besting Davide DiRuscio in a tightly-contested positional battle. Coming into the game, Cordingley said the team plans to decide the starting goalie on a week-to-week basis. After that debut, it would be difficult to take Buque out.
The defense, lacking multiple veteran names from last year’s roster, was swarming and disciplined, holding a high-powered Rock offense in single digits. There was consistent high energy from a group lacking NLL experience. Tom Schreiber, last year’s Rookie of the Year, was held without a goal. As a team, the Rock didn’t score in the first 12 minutes and 57 seconds of the game.
“I saw the ball pretty well,” Buque said. “It was fully because of the defense. They were able to do what we practiced. ... I was able to see the ball all the way through.”
Steve Priolo said the night before the game he thought the Bandits defense would surprise people around the league. In the first game, they did just that.
“I think we challenged them a lot,” Cordingley said. “We made it difficult. We used our athleticism.”
After a last-place finish in 2016, Dietrich was busy tinkering with the roster this offseason. He added eight new faces to the 20-man active roster, including players expected to play big roles for the team. Despite a few offensive lapses, the Bandits showed few signs of unfamiliarity.
Buffalo started the game strong, taking a 3-0 lead in the first 11 minutes. The lead evaporated when Toronto scored three straight at the end of the first quarter and first five minutes of the second.
Buffalo didn’t take a hold of the game until late in the third quarter. The Bandits went on a 7-3 run in the last 24 minutes to move to 1-0.
Cordingley and Smith both said the strong late performance reminded them of the Bandits team two years ago, which rode clutch performances to an appearance in the Champions Cup.
Byrne, who scored his first NLL goal in the third quarter, summed up the team’s feelings simply.
“Life is good right now,” Byrne said.
Bandits forward Craig England left the game early with an injury. He was in the press box with the team’s practice roster in the second half. The third-year Bandit scored a goal in the first quarter.
Mark Steenhuis, Pat Saunders, Jordan Durston and Chase Fraser all scored a goal apiece for Buffalo.
Cordingley credited assistant coach John Tavares for a handful of successful power play sets. The Bandits went 3 for 5 on the man-up, but did allow one short-handed goal to Brodie Merrill in the second quarter.
Dan Lintner led the Rock with three goals, while Canisius College graduate Adam Jones notched two goals and three assists. Nick Rose made 45 saves on 57 shots.
Buffalo is off next week, returning to action Dec. 23 against the Rochester Knighthawks. The Bandits aren’t back at home until a Jan. 6 outing with the Calgary Roughnecks.
With a win under his belt, Cordingley said he wishes the Bandits could get right back to work.
“We’d love to go back at it, but we will have two practices together, maybe three, to watch some video and correct the mistakes,” Cordingley said. “I’d rather go into a two-week break with a win than a loss.”