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Bandits heading back to playoffs

Wins don’t get much better than the one the Buffalo Bandits had on Saturday night.

They turned in a powerful performance at an opportune time in defeating the Vancouver Stealth, 17-9. It was a night that thrilled the 15,897 in the First Niagara Center.

For starters, the win meant the Bandits had clinched a playoff spot in the National Lacrosse League’s East Division. Buffalo’s victory eliminated the New England Black Wolves from postseason consideration. The Bandits would have wrapped up third place with a New England loss in Rochester – which did take place Saturday – but this was the preferred way to advance.

“We’re happy we made our own bed. We made the playoffs on our terms,” Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said.

“It was especially good to do it this way after last year, when we sort of back-pedaled our way in,” forward Ryan Benesch said. “We punched our own ticket this time.”

The Bandits will finish third in the NLL East, playing at either Toronto or Rochester in a one-game elimination series in about two weeks. As Buffalo approaches the postseason, the team is playing some of its best lacrosse. The Bandits have won their last two games and at 9-7 are two games above .500 for the first time this season.

If Buffalo does have a good playoff run, the team’s offensive stars will have to be at their best. They played that way against the Stealth. In particular, Mark Steenhuis was brilliant with seven goals and two assists.

“That was unbelievable,” Benesch said about Steenhuis’ performance. “It was like playing” the video game “NBA Jam, when you’ve got a guy making everything.”

Steenhuis moved into 10th place on the NLL’s all-time career scoring list with his first point of the night. He passed Blaine Manning (833 career points).

“I felt like I had a little extra burst,” Steenhuis said. “I felt good and the ball was going in. I could have had a couple more, but I probably got a couple of good bounces too.”

Steenhuis had plenty of help. Benesch finished with four goals and five assists, while Dhane Smith had one goal and eight assists. They were a three-man gang that broke a close game wide open by scoring eight straight goals from late in the third quarter to midway through the fourth period.

“Mark was shooting peas in practice this week, and picking his spots in warm-ups,” Cordingley said. “Benny was extremely good. He got some big goals in the first half. And Dhane was just Dhane. He continues to get better.”

At the other end, Buffalo’s defense was generally solid throughout the game. The Bandits never trailed along the way.

“The defense did a great job,” goalie Anthony Cosmo said. “They were getting to rebounds, and scooping up rebounds. That helped a lot.”

And it all came on a night devoted to the memory of Tucker Williams, the son of former Bandit Shawn Williams. A pregame ceremony featured a video from Shawn and a fine rendition of “Oh Canada” from Dylana Williams.

“It was an emotional night,” Cordingley said. “I had no idea Shawn’s daughter was going to sing ‘Oh Canada,’ and I had to regroup myself on the bench. ... You’re never going to forget that. It was perfect.”

The Bandits still have two games left on the schedule, including one Sunday night against the Black Hawks in New England (6 p.m., Radio 550 AM). Nothing is at stake in the standings, with the possible exception of home-field advantage in the finals. So it’s a matter of cleaning up some things before the playoffs.

“We need to get everything in order,” Steenhuis said. “The games don’t mean much, but we want to be consistent.”