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Buffalo fans are starved for playoff success

Every now and again, when the mood strikes him, Rich Kilgour dusts off the old videotape of his brother’s finest moment. In 1993, Darris Kilgour scored the winner in a 13-12 victory over Philadelphia, giving the Bandits their second straight championship in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

It was a great year for Buffalo sports.

The Bills rode their comeback win over Houston to their third straight trip to the Super Bowl. Pat LaFontaine had 148 points with Alexander Mogilny on his wing and scoring a franchise-record 76 goals. The Bandits had a young star in John Tavares, who led them to the title before 16,325 fans in Memorial Auditorium.

Buffalo wasn’t the tortured sports town you see today. Fans were fighting through the first three Super Bowl losses, but there was more a sense of optimism at the time than impending doom. Home Run Throwback and No Goal were years away. On April 10, 1993, the sellout crowd at The Aud was electric.

“The loudest I’ve ever heard a building in my life,” Rich Kilgour, now an assistant coach with the Bandits, said Saturday. “Every once in a while, we’ll watch that tape, and you can literally see the camera shaking. That’s the kind of passion the fans bring. For that to not get you pumped up is nearly impossible.”

Buffalo fans were in top form Saturday night while cheering for the Bandits in their 20-15 win over the New England Black Wolves in the National Lacrosse League playoffs at First Niagara Center. The Bandits will play for their first championship since 2008 when the final begins next weekend.

Any win over a team from New England is a good win. It’s even better when it happens in the postseason. Attendance was 14,255, well below capacity at First Niagara Center, but the crowd was more riled up for the Bandits than fans have been for the Sabres in the past five years.

Man, it was loud as the Bandits put the finishing touches on the series, deafening as the final horn sounded.

Kilgour knows how it works around here. He was raised on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation and graduated from Niagara Wheatfield High School in 1987. He’s a lifelong Bills and Sabres and fan. He has watched Western New York come alive many times as a player and a coach. It happened again Saturday.

“When you’re going good, they’re going good,” he said. “Man, what a fun ride. They’re at Level 10 all year. Somehow, in a big game, they’re at Level 12 or 13.”

Lacrosse is exciting, but I wouldn’t pretend to know the intricacies of the sport. I’ve watched college lacrosse on television. My daughter plays defense for Frontier. I coached former Bandits forward Joe Resetarits for two years in youth basketball. For me, that’s about the extent.

Looking for insight? The Bandits increase their chances of winning when they get the ball to Dhane Smith, who had set single-season NLL records with 72 goals and 137 points this season. He had four goals and five assists Saturday. He didn’t score until 54 seconds remained in the second quarter because he had the Black Wolves hanging all over him.

You need not be a lacrosse whiz to identify good teams and see how they can energize a desperate town. Buffalo’s intensity, reserved for the postseason and despising Tom Brady, was obvious when Jay Thorimbert gave the Bandits the first goal 11 seconds into the game. It never waned.

“There’s nothing like it,” Kilgour said. “Our last championship was in ’08. We would come in a couple of hours early to get ready for the game, and the parking lot was already full. People were out there tailgating – for lacrosse. When you’re on a run, this town will love you like no other.”

It has been so long since Buffalo won anything of consequence that you forget how the city awakens for the playoffs.

The Bills haven’t reached the playoffs since 1999 and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, when they ended Don Shula’s coaching career. The Sabres haven’t reached the playoffs since 2011 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

People grow tired of stories about Buffalo’s good old days, but it beats rehashing miserable seasons of the recent past. The best way to change the conversation is changing the results. The Bisons haven’t reached the postseason since 2005. The Bandits haven’t captured casual fans since winning their last championship, in 2008.

You know Buffalo fans. They would embrace a national badminton championship if it shined light on the region. The Bandits for years have had a strong, passionate following that didn’t need to be reminded how to support their team. But the postseason brings a different sound that hasn’t been heard in a while.

“It’s exciting times when you’re in the playoffs whether it’s hockey, football or lacrosse,” Tavares said. “We don’t get the notoriety the other sports get, but it’s still as exciting. It makes a big difference when you have the city behind you.”

Buffalo fans have always had a soft spot for the Bandits. They identify with players who have real jobs during the week. They are electricians and teachers and construction workers. Kilgour sells gasoline and cigarettes on the reservation. They’re not trying to get rich. They’re trying to win.

The Bandits are the one team that has won their share. So what if their first three titles were captured under a different league. Or that they had an advantage over other teams because they made more money at the gate. Or that they have more support now with the Pegulas behind them.

They have given the people what they wanted, a reason to cheer.

“People appreciate that we’re not millionaires,” Kilgour said. “We’re just blue-collar guys that do this truly for the love of the sport. If you play hard and passionate before Buffalo fans, they will love you. Even when we haven’t been that good, we play with our hearts on our sleeves, and the whole town appreciates that.”