The Buffalo Bandits ended their frustrating season in the most appropriate way possible.
John Tavares of the Bandits scored what looked like the tying goal in the final second, only to have it wiped out by a crease violation. Buffalo thus went home a 7-6 loser to the Toronto Rock in the first round of the National Lacrosse League playoffs before 9,472 in the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
"It was an odd finish," Tavares said. "It was indicative of how we played in the regular season."
Toronto has eliminated Buffalo from the playoffs for three straight years, but this was the most devastating. The Bandits had let a four-goal lead slowly slip away during the second half, and Toronto took a one-goal lead with 1:36 to go on a score by Brenden Thenhaus. On the final possession of the game, Buffalo frantically worked for the last shot. Tavares took a pass from Luke Wiles and beat Rock goalie Nick Rose.
"I thought I had tied the game," Tavares said. "We ran the 'Flying V' play, and it worked."
Officials went to the video to review the play, and confirmed that Bandits forward Tracey Kelusky was in the crease when Tavares' shot went into the net. No goal. Game over. Season over.
"I got ahead of the defenseman, and he pushed me into the crease. It's a rule," Kelusky said.
"It was a stupid play at a stupid time," coach Darris Kilgour said. "It explains our whole season."
The Bandits couldn't have asked for a better start. They jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the first period, making a powerful Toronto offense look confused and disoriented. With a 6-2 lead, the Bandits seemed to be playing their best defensive game of the year.
"[Scott Self] was a horse. So was Chris White. So were a number of guys," said goalie Anthony Cosmo, who played very well all night.
The worst moment of the first half came late in the first quarter, when defenseman Ian Llord was hit from behind into the boards. Not only was Kilgour upset about the lack of a penalty call, but he lost Llord for the rest of the game with a separated shoulder.
"He's run from behind, and the referee from 2 feet away couldn't see it," Kilgour said. "And a guy who was standing at center made the exact same call against us last week. That's a dangerous play -- it was a separated shoulder, and could have been a broken neck."
The lack of scoring on both sides continued into the third quarter. There were no goals for almost 10 minutes, surprising for two teams that had combined for 35 goals in a game played here March 16.
"That's playoff lacrosse," Tavares said. "There weren't a lot of power plays. The defenses picked up their intensity."
Garrett Billings finally broke through with a goal at 9:57 of the third quarter, and Kasey Beirnes followed with a natural hat trick within the span of 6 minutes and 57 seconds. The Bandits were no longer leading for the first time since the game's second minute.
"We strayed from the game plan, but you have to give credit where credit is due," Kelusky said.
The veteran was quick to add how frustrating it was for he and his teammates to come close to scoring several times in the second half, only to come up empty for all 30 minutes.
The 6-6 stalemate lasted for more than eight minutes. Then came a score that was as stunning as it was unexpected. Toronto's Thenhaus -- taken off the Bandits' practice squad by the Rock earlier in the season -- came up with a loose ball to Cosmo's right.
"I saw there were five seconds on the shot clock, and I wanted to just get it on net before the reset," Thenhaus said. "I only had one hand on the stick, and I just wanted to find a lane."
Thenhaus sort of shoveled the ball along the ground, and it went into the net. Everyone in the building seemed shocked. Self slammed his stick against the crossbar.
"It was a nice surprise," Thenhaus said.
Cosmo said, "That's our season in a nutshell. It was one of those things."
Thenhaus said he let out a few profanities when Tavares put the ball in the net, but exhaled when word came that his team had won.
"You need to get those bounces in the playoffs," Thenhaus said.
As a result, the Bandits have been bounced out of the postseason.