Every game against a divisional foe is reminiscent of a playoff game for the Buffalo Bandits with how close the East Division standings are. Buffalo entered the weekend as one of four teams tied atop the division at 7-7. Saturday's foe, the New England Black Wolves, sat a half game behind the pack at 6-7.
"That one was a must-win for us," Bandits forward Josh Byrne said. "We knew that going in."
The Bandits didn't crumble under the pressure, getting four goals and two assists from Byrne in a 14-11 victory at KeyBank Center. It was Buffalo's second straight win against New England.
After Saturday's results, the Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks are tied atop the division at 8-7. There's no relaxing for the Bandits though, as they are still a half game away from missing the playoffs with three games remaining. Plus, two teams behind them, Rochester and the Toronto Rock, remain on the regular season slate.
"I wouldn't call us a first place team just yet," Byrne said with a laugh. We've got a long way to go."
It'll be a test for the Bandits, who have struggled with inconsistency all season. Buffalo was riding a four-game losing streak before beating New England last week.
"This is going to show our character, I'll tell you that," Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said.
Byrne led the way for the Bandits Saturday by scoring in an uncharacteristic way. Normally a high flyer in the crease, Byrne had most of his success against New England with bounce shots from outside.
"Coaches have been getting after me for not shooting," Byrne said. "I still don't shoot as much as I should from the outside. Sometimes I kind of want to take it 1-on-1 too much. Teams are kind of noticing that."
Byrne's fellow first-year player, Chase Fraser, also turned heads with a spectacular goal in the first quarter. He had the presence to go to his backhand while diving into the crease, surprising Black Wolves goalie Aaron Bold.
"That kid is probably the most athletic kid I've seen in my life," Byrne said. "You see him doing backflips and stuff and flying in the air. He can just find his way to the net. It's unreal."
Fraser made the most of his opportunity, as he hadn't played for the Bandits since the team acquired Shawn Evans on Feb. 28. The rookie forward, inserted into the lineup due to an injury to Craig England, finished with three goals and two assists.
"I just had a day today," Fraser said. "I just felt it."
Buffalo had its best offensive showing of the season last week in New England's barn, going on a 12-goal run in a 20-7 victory. It appeared the Bandits would have another breezy game early on. Buffalo scored the first five goals, capped off by Fraser's backhander with 2:30 left in the first quarter.
The Black Wolves didn't back down, thanks largely to forward Kevin Crowley. He scored twice in the final 2:05 of the first quarter to cut Buffalo's lead to 5-2.
"We knew they'd be a lot better and have a lot higher compete level," Cordingley said. "They are a desperate team."
New England opened the second quarter with a 5-2 run, featuring two more goals by Crowley, to tie the game at seven. Byrne scored in the final minute of the first half and Fraser scored the only goal of the third quarter to extend Buffalo's lead to 9-7, but the Black Wolves responded again. Crowley and Kyle Buchanan scored to tie the game up within the first three minutes of the fourth quarter.
The teams traded goals for most of the fourth until Buffalo pulled away late. The Bandits scored three of the last four goals of the game to secure a second straight victory. The Black Wolves had a handful of opportunities to cut the lead to one goal in the final minutes, but Bandits goalie Alex Buque was up to the task. He finished the night with 54 saves on 65 shots.
"He made some sensational saves," Cordingley said.
Evans netted a goal and six assists for the Bandits, while Dhane Smith had a goal and five assists. Crowley finished with five goals for the Black Wolves.
The Bandits are off next week, their final bye week of the season. Buffalo returns to action the week after, April 14, when the team heads to Calgary to play the Roughnecks in the final road game of the regular season.