Was a stinker in the playoffs enough to spoil the Buffalo Bandits' body of work for the 2005 season?
Their season ended Saturday night with a 19-14 defeat at the hands of the Rochester Knighthawks in HSBC Arena in the first round of the National Lacrosse League playoffs. That's two rounds earlier than last year's road run to the Champion's Cup final.
Still, the Bandits improved by three games in the regular season (to 11-5 from 8-8), by one place (third to second) in the rugged East Division and earned a home game in the playoffs for the first time in two years.
The Bandits set franchise records with six road victories and an 11.4 goals-against average. For the first time, they won games in Toronto, Rochester and Philadelphia in the same season and went 5-1 on the road against division opponents.
The Bandits played magnificent team defense. In their final six regular-season games, they yielded 63 goals (10.5 average).
"We had some big changes defensively, but all the new guys who came in learned our system and played amazingly well," said defenseman Kyle Couling, who made his second straight All-Star Game appearance. "This defense is going to be around for quite awhile and in good shape for several years."
John Tavares is 36 and keeps fooling Father Time. He had one of the best seasons of his 14-year career with 43 goals, 59 assists and 102 points. He finished tied for fourth in the league in scoring and continues to make his teammates better.
Fourth-year midfielder Mark Steenhuis continued his development as one of the league's best two-way performers and played the best lacrosse of his life during the second half of the season. He led the Bandits with five goals Saturday night, the fourth time in the final six games he tallied at least three.
Average home attendance increased to 10,288 from 8,929 last season and 7,002 the year before. The Bandits attracted six five-figure home crowds in nine dates, including the playoff gathering of 10,014. That's the highest level since 1998, when they averaged 12,256 per game.
Delby Powless, the No. 1 pick in the fall's NLL entry draft, had a great rookie season with 20 goals and 44 points. He set a franchise rookie record with 24 assists despite missing three late-season games with injuries.
Goaltender Steve Dietrich led the league in save percentage (.789) and goals-against average (10.96).
Dietrich saved his worst for last. He yielded 15 goals on 36 shots against the Knighthawks, including 11 scores on 19 shots in the first half when his team fell behind by as many as seven goals.
"I picked a bad time to have the worst half of my life. It's going to be a long summer," Dietrich said. "This is going to haunt me until we get to play them again next year. Until we get that shot, it's going to hurt. Defensively I thought we had our best season, and you don't want to leave it like this on such a sour note."
For the second straight season, home was anything but sweet for the Bandits.
They went 5-4 in HSBC Arena and beat just one winning team (the Knighthawks, 11-9, on April 1). Last season, the Bandits were 4-4 at home.
"That's just not good enough at home," said Darris Kilgour, who has a 34-20 record and three postseason appearances in three seasons as head coach. "We work all year to get a home playoff game, and go out there and play poorly, so it is quite disappointing."
Success on the power play dropped to 37 percent from 42.9 percent in 2004. Even more alarming, the Bandits yielded too many short-handed goals in those situations. Two short-handed goals got the Knighthawks off and running in the first quarter Saturday night.
"Those short-handed goals were just huge for us," Knighthawks coach Paul Day said. "I think they really set the tone."
The Bandits continue to embarrass themselves in the faceoff circle.
They won a franchise-worst 37.9 percent of their draws in the regular season and finished last in the league for the second straight year. They haven't won half their draws since 1994 and fare even worse in the playoffs. In three postseason games last year, the Bandits lost 57 of 98 draws (.352). Rochester won 26 of 37 Saturday night.
"A faceoff is just a loose ball unless the faceoff man picks it up," Kilgour said. "I was more disappointed with our wing players, not so much with my faceoff men. I'm more worried about guys who will go and help my faceoff man. It just seemed like our guys didn't always give it their all on loose balls during those faceoffs."
Tavares plans to play for the Akwesasne Thunder of the Ontario Lacrosse Association this summer and will be back for his 15th season as a Bandit.
"I didn't think I was in great shape this year," Tavares said after the playoff loss. "I had a couple of nagging injuries. I'm going to try to come back healthier and fitter."
Dietrich, the franchise's all-time leader in victories and saves, says he'll be back for his 13th season: "I'm already looking forward to October to get this thing going again."
Thirty-six-year-old captain Rich Kilgour, who along with Tavares are the only remaining original Bandits, isn't certain about his future.
"I'm really going to take some time and think about it this summer," he said. "I'll see how I feel and make a decision."
The Bandits have Anaheim's first-round draft choice, which is No. 2 overall. That could drop should the league expand during the offseason. But having such a prime pick should help the team acquire another impact rookie along the lines of Powless this season and A.J. Shannon the year before.