The Buffalo Bandits and Saskatchewan Rush are as closely matched as everyone thought entering the National Lacrosse League finals on Saturday night.
On a night when both teams had trouble getting leads for long and earned every goal they scored, it was the Rush who came through at crunch time to earn the 11-9 victory before 12,692 in the First Niagara Center.
Saskatchewan moved into the driver's seat in the best-of-three series by winning the first game. The Rush head home to Saskatoon next Saturday night to play the Bandits again. Buffalo must win on their series is over.
Ben McIntosh scored the goal for Saskatchewan that put his team up for good. He was left alone right in front of the net, and buried the opportunity with 4:16 left to play in the game.
Zack Greer added an insurance goal about a minute later. Buffalo couldn't get the goals back, and when time ran out the Rush was a win away from defending its NLL championship.
Dhane Smith finished with three goals and three assists for the Bandits.
It was easy to expect a slow start offensively for the two teams. After all, it was the start of the NLL finals, which is a pretty big stage by indoor lacrosse standards. Most of the Bandits have never played for a title at this level. Besides, the only regular season game between the two teams wound up 19-18 in overtime, and neither side was too happy about how loosely that game was played.
But it was Saskatchewan that found its game first - eventually. The Rush had some good opportunities in the final 10 minutes of the period, but Buffalo goalie Anthony Cosmo made several fine games to keep the game scoreless.
Finally, Mark Matthews of the Rush came down on the right side and beat Cosmo with a good shot. The goal came at 7:51 of the quarter. It was longest wait for the game's opening goal this season. The previous standard was 5 minutes, 39 seconds on March 11 against Rochester.
The lead doubled shortly before the end of the period. Adrian Sorichetti made it 2-0 for Saskatchewan, and that's the way the quarter ended. It was Buffalo's first scoreless period since a April loss in Toronto.
The local fans had reason to feel a little nervous when Matthews scored in the second period's opening minute to make a 3-0 game. But it's difficult to slow the league's best offense for long, and the Bandits' offense soon found its scoring touch.
Anthony Malcom finally put the Bandits on the scoreboard, and Smith added a power-play goal to cut the Rush lead to one. Jeff Cornwall, a former Bandit, scored to put Saskatchewan up by a pair, but that only fired Buffalo up.
Ryan Benesch scored on the power play, and Steenhuis scored just before landing in the crease on a dive to tie the score. Malcom gave Buffalo its first lead of the game with a tick past nine minutes gone on the second-period clock. Alex Kedoh Hill capped the run with a spectacular goal in transition. He blistered a low shot between the legs of Aaron Bold for a 6-4 Buffalo lead.
Then it was the Rush's turn. Greer scored a nice goal in traffic to cut the lead to one. That was followed by a goal from Jarrett Davis in the final two minutes. That left the score at 6-6, and it stayed that way until halftime.
The teams seemed closely matched in the first half, but they moved almost in lock-step with each other at the start of the third quarter. Both teams weren't giving up many opportunities, so anything scoring chances were very much earned.
Buffalo took the lead again when Smith scored at 2:36 of the period. It came about a minute after he had hit the goal post from long range. Robert Church, one of the Rush's top scorers, answered about four minutes later.
Buffalo killed off a penalty a few minutes later, and Smith struck again to complete the hat trick. He took a long, hard shot with something of a sweeping motion that must be tough for goalies to pick up through traffic. This one beat Aaron Bold pretty cleanly.
But Saskatchewan answered again. McIntosh tallied with 2:10 left in the period, and the teams were back to tied. That's the way it stayed. The shots were even as well at 39-39.