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Rock need OT to avoid sweep by Bandits

TORONTO – The Buffalo Bandits came ever-so-close to knocking off the best team in the National Lacrosse League on back-to-back nights. Fifty-seven seconds away, in fact.

That wasn’t much of a consolation prize.

Buffalo dropped an 11-10 overtime decision to the Toronto Rock before 11,460 in the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. Combined with Friday night’s win back in Buffalo, the Bandits certainly showed that they can play with a quality opponent.

“We realized that when we play disciplined lacrosse for a full 60 minutes, we can beat any team in the league,” Bandits forward Ryan Benesch said.

Alas, 59 minutes wasn’t quite enough to prevent Buffalo from sinking to 6-6. Once that 60th minute began, the Bandits didn’t get enough bounces to pick up the weekend split.

Benesch had scored the go-ahead goal for Buffalo with 2:31 in regulation. Toronto pulled goalie Brandon Miller in favor of the extra attacker in the final minute. Josh Sanderson threw a shot on goal, and Anthony Cosmo made the initial save. But the ball pinballed around the crowd that was packed into the area in front of the crease. It eventually dribbled into the net; Kasey Beirnes was credited with the goal.

“We had the 10-9 lead, and then they scored on a rebound,” John Tavares of the Bandits said. “When it goes into overtime, anything can happen.”

Tavares almost scored the storybook goal of the season in the opening minute of extra time. His shot from close range bounced around the net so quickly that it was tough to judge whether it had entered the net.

“On the replay, it looked like it may have crossed the line. But that’s the type of goal that’s tough to overrule,” Tavares said.

Tavares’ nephew, the hockey-playing John of the New York Islanders, scored in overtime in the same building five days earlier to beat the Maple Leafs.

Play went on for another few possessions. Then Brett Hickey got a step on defender Jay Thorimbert, and snapped home a shot against Cosmo to end the night’s drama.

“He’s a great offensive player,” Cosmo said about Hickey. “I don’t know if Jay somehow got tripped up or something. But earlier JT dives across the crease and doesn’t quite score. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go your way.”

The finish capped another intense game between the teams, minus most of the rough stuff that sometimes took center stage in Buffalo’s win on Friday. The Rock jumped out to an 8-5 lead at halftime, only to see the Bandits fight back with the only four goals of the third quarter.

“In the first half we were not very good,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said. “We were a lot better after that. In the second half, we took it to them and played the way we’re capable of playing.”

Benesch’s goal looked as if it would cap a balanced night of scoring for Buffalo. He finished with two goals and three assists, while Mark Steenhuis had five assists. Dhane Smith and Tavares had three points each.

But it all went into the “nice try” category. The Bandits missed a great chance to scramble the National Lacrosse League East playoff race, as Toronto moved to 10-2. With no games left with the Rock and Rochester Knighthawks, the Bandits will need plenty of wins down the stretch to challenge the league’s top two teams.

In the meantime, the Bandits must take care of business and keep the Minnesota Swarm and New England Black Wolves in the rearview mirror. Only three teams in each division make the playoffs.

“We’re a .500 club, and there are teams chasing us,” Cordingley said. “There’s not a weak team in this league.”

Minnesota comes to the First Niagara Center on Saturday night.