What started out looking like a potential disaster ended closer to delirium for the Buffalo Bandits.
Down by four scores just six minutes into Sunday afternoon's game against the Minnesota Swarm, and using a backup goalie getting his first taste of playoff action, it looked as if the Bandits were on their way to a one-and-done postseason.
But Buffalo regrouped in front of Mike Thompson, made the slow start seem like little more than a hiccup, and rolled to a 14-8 victory before 9,003 at HSBC Arena.
"Throughout the season our confidence has spilled out onto me," said Thompson, who made 38 saves and blanked the Swarm the entire second half. "There wasn't any problem with my confidence. A couple of [the first four scores] were squeakers that I got a piece of.
"I just tried to calm myself down a little bit, it being my first playoff game. In the second half, everybody settled down."
Buffalo scored all seven goals in the final 30 minutes and 14 of the last 18. The reward for the Bandits (11-6) is a trip to Rochester to meet the Knighthawks (15-2) in the semifinals at 8:05 p.m. Friday at Blue Cross Arena. Friday's winner will host the National Lacrosse League's Champion's Cup final on May 12.
Thompson got the nod because Steve Dietrich, the league's Most Valuable Player in 2006, suffered a slight tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a loss to Rochester on April 13.
Before Thompson had worked up a decent sweat, the Swarm (9-8) had potted all but one of their first five shots.
"I know Mikey has streaks where sometimes he doesn't see the ball real well," Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said. "But once he gets hot, he gets very hot. If I'd had the option I probably would have made a move [to Dietrich] at that point. But I didn't have that option."
Instead, his reliance on Thompson was rewarded.
NLL career scoring leader John Tavares hit all three of his goals in the second half. He and Kevin Dostie both finished with hat tricks plus two assists as the Bandits ran away from an 8-7 halftime deficit.
"We talked about not blowing up, maintaining our composure when things weren't going our way," said Tavares, who scored the 13th hat trick of his 24-game playoff career. "That's what happened. We gave them a four-goal lead but didn't panic. We stuck with it, the defense kept us in the game."
After the Bandits had taken their first lead at 7-6 on Dan Teat's goal 2:31 before halftime, the Swarm struck for two to reclaim the advantage. The second of those tallies could have been particularly demoralizing.
With Thompson pulled for an extra attacker with 19 seconds left, Delby Powless' shot was saved by Minnesota's Nick Patterson. That led to an outlet pass to Jon Sullivan, who had no one but Tavares left between himself and an empty net.
"[The Swarm] weren't ready for the referee to blow [the play] in," said Kilgour, whose team will be making its fourth trip to the semifinals in his five seasons as head coach of the Bandits. "We had a play set up. Unfortunately our guys weren't ready for it to be blown in that quickly either.
"Then when we got that shot right away, no one reacted to the bench. Johnny ran back to play net, [to] which I went 'why?' He should have just come back to the bench. They fell asleep, we had a golden opportunity and didn't score on it. It was a bit of a mistake on our parts because you want to let it run down to four or five seconds when you shoot, but they made an even bigger mistake and got rewarded for it."
But instead of pouting, the Bandits refocused.
"That was sort of a compilation of errors that ended in that situation," Bandits defenseman Kyle Couling said. "It was kind of like we said, 'now we've gotten it out of our systems so let's get back to playing our roles.' "
Thompson devoured the last 20 shots he faced while Brett Bucktooth, Tavares and Dostie scored during a dominating third quarter. Jason Crosbie's short-handed goal with 5:38 left wrapped it up.