After the Buffalo Bandits and Saskatchewan Rush had battled on even terms for more than 55 minutes, it only took an instant for the game to be decided.
Ben McIntosh of the Rush took a pass right in front of the Buffalo net, with no Bandit defenders in sight.
“It was a case that we had a play set, but that wasn’t the play,” McIntosh said. Jarrett Davis “saw me and got me the ball, and it went in. I’ll take it.”
“McIntosh likes to finish into the top corner,” Buffalo goalie Anthony Cosmo said. “He outworked me to that spot.”
Just like that, Saskatchewan had a 10-9 lead with 4:16 to play. Zack Greer added an insurance goal about a minute later, and the Rush were on their way to an 11-9 win over the Bandits.
The victory, which came before 12,692 in First Niagara Center, gave Saskatchewan the opening win in the best-of-three series of the National Lacrosse League finals. The Rush and Bandits head to Saskatoon for the second game of the series next Saturday night.
The margin for error was paper-thin most of the night, but Saskatchewan made just enough good plays at crunch time to steal the home-field advantage from Buffalo.
“Both teams are battling for the Cup, and you can’t get any tighter than that,” Bandits’ coach Troy Cordingley said. “They went on a two-goal run late, and time ran out for us.”
Buffalo had relied on its offense for much of its success throughout the season. The team led the NLL in scoring, and had been very difficult to outscore throughout the season. But Saskatchewan’s defense – the most stingy in the league in terms of goals allowed – was in good form. It was only the second time this season that the Bandits had scored fewer than 10 goals.
“We feel like when we get 15 goals, we can be comfortable,” said rookie forward Anthony Malcom, who had two goals. “We didn’t do that. The defense and Cosmo were spectacular, so this one falls on the offense for not closing this one out.”
This was a well-played game for the most part. Saskatchewan couldn’t have asked for a better start and a better tempo at the outset, as the Rush had a 2-0 lead after 15 minutes. Buffalo scored six of the next seven goals for its only offensive run of the game but gave up the last two goals to leave the score 6-6 at halftime.
“In the first 15 minutes, we were a little tentative in regard to ball movement,” Cordingley said. “Our defense did well to keep us in it. Then we had better ball movement and created some better opportunities.”
In the second half, the teams took turns scoring. Buffalo had three different one-goal leads, only to see the Rush bounce back each time. It set the stage for the final burst for Saskatchewan. The Bandits didn’t apply great pressure in the final minutes, and suffered only their second loss at home this year.
The top scorers on both sides generally were kept under control. Dhane Smith of the Bandits had three goals and three assists, while Ryan Benesch and Malcom had two each. Mark Matthews, Robert Church, Zack Green and McIntosh had two goals each for the Rush. Both teams limited transition goals by the opposition.
“Their defense is awfully good, but our defense is very comparable,” Cordingley said. “I thought we had some high-quality opportunities in the second half, but we didn’t bury them.”
Meanwhile, no one on the Buffalo side was doing anything but praising Cosmo for his performance. The veteran goalie had several huge saves that gave the Bandits a chance to win.
“That’s a credit to my defense,” Cosmo said. “They did a great job of keeping them to outside shots. Even on the inside shots that they got, there wasn’t a lot of time or a lot of room for them. … It was one of those nights I was seeing the ball really well.”
The loss eliminated the Bandits’ margin for error in the series. Buffalo has to defeat the league’s defending champion in front of what is sure to be a loud, excited crowd next week to keep playing.
“We know we can do better than that,” Malcom said. “We know we beat them in their own barn before and we can do it again.”
“We just have to be more consistent,” Cordingley added. “We have to play 60 minutes and not 55.”