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Bandits can’t overcome Rock’s short-handed goals

TORONTO – When Friday’s game between the Toronto Rock and the Buffalo Bandits was up for grabs in the fourth quarter, some sort of momentum-changing play figured to be crucial.

A short-handed goal certainly qualifies … and the Rock got two of them.

That altered the direction of the game enough to give Toronto a 13-11 win over the Bandits before 11,413 in the Air Canada Centre.

“We were a minus-four on special teams, and you’re not going to win many games that way,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said. “We had some good looks but didn’t score, and the defense gave up a couple short-handed. That’s unacceptable.”

Stephan Leblanc had the first of those goals, the score coming with 10:36 left in the game and the Rock clinging to a 10-9 lead. Later on, Brodie Merrill took his turn with 3:31 left to make it a 12-10 lead. Merrill’s goal was the one that put the Bandits away.

“Those special teams will kill you every time,” Bandits forward Mark Steenhuis said. “We tried to put pressure on and had some good looks, but” goalie Nick Rose of the Rock “made some key saves.”

This figured to be an emotional night for the Rock. They paid tribute in their home opener to their late general manager, Terry Sanderson, in a pregame ceremony. Sanderson died during the offseason.

Still, the teams were generally evenly matched for much of the contest. Neither side was able to get a run going of any length, so the score see-sawed along the way.

One event that was somewhat game-changing took place early on. John Tavares only played in the game’s first few minutes, and missed the rest of the contest with what was called a lower-body injury. There was no additional information available after the game.

That caused a ripple effect, as the Bandits were down to 15 position players.

“It was a little tough,” Ryan Benesch said. “Chad Culp and I were a little gassed toward the end. We moved some guys around, but mostly we just rolled the same five offensive guys out there. You get tired that way.”

Benesch certainly didn’t look tired. He finished with five goals and continued his outstanding play of late. He’s played like an All-Star in the first few weeks of the season.

“Definitely last year was a time of adjustment,” he said. “We had such great players as Shawn Williams, John Tavares and Mark Steenhuis that deserve respect. This year I’ve tried to take it up a notch.”

“He’s been on fire,” Steenhuis said. “He’s been playing great. He’s got the best hands in the league. He’s really putting the points up.”

Steenhuis contributed as well with three goals and four assists.

Buffalo started slowly, and then put on a burst. The Bandits turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead by scoring three goals in 28 seconds. Toronto regained the lead with a minute gone in the second quarter, but then didn’t score a goal in the rest of the half. Steenhuis and Benesch did all of the scoring that left Buffalo up, 7-5, at the half. Still, Cordingley wasn’t satisfied.

“I don’t think we played that well, but we got a few bounces,” he said. “We stayed close, and” goalie Anthony Cosmo “was really good. I will say we battled.”

But in the second half, Buffalo didn’t play with much jump at times. Toronto regained the lead, and the teams were tied, 9-9, after three quarters. The Rock had the better of play from there.

“Every team in the league knows you have to play four quarters, and this time we definitely didn’t play four quarters,” Steenhuis said. “It was a little bit sloppy, and our shots went way down.”

The Bandits fell to 2-2 on the season with the end of their two-game winning streak, while Toronto is 3-0. Buffalo hosts Minnesota on Friday night, and goes to Rochester on Saturday night.