The Buffalo Bandits' playoff aspirations come down to the final week of the regular season.
The Toronto Rock, facing elimination with a loss, spoiled Buffalo's playoff-clinching opportunity and the team's fifth annual Tucker Out Lymphoma Night Saturday. A pair of Toronto forwards notched five-point performances as the Rock bested Buffalo, 16-11, in front of a season-high KeyBank Center crowd of 16,630.
"It's an emotional night and obviously one we wanted and needed," Bandits forward Mitch Jones said. "Back to the drawing board. It gets difficult saying that every week. ... We just have to keep going."
Buffalo would have clinched a spot in the postseason with a win and a Rochester Knighthawks victory against the New England Black Wolves. Neither result went the Bandits' way Saturday, so they face a must-win situation next Saturday when they host the KHawks.
"We can't really worry about tonight now, can we?" Bandits Head Coach Troy Cordingley said. "Obviously we're going to be correcting things that we need to correct to get on the same page, but we can't worry about tonight. We've got to get rid of this one right now."
Buffalo got out to a good start after an emotional pregame ceremony to honor former Bandits forward Shawn Williams' late son, Tucker, who lost his battle with lymphoma in 2014. The Bandits, donning jerseys designed by Tucker's brother, took a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes thanks to goals from Shawn Evans and Vaughn Harris.
The Bandits were buzzing, but the offense stalled after a handful of blunders in transition defense. The Rock capitalized on breakaway opportunities, going on a 4-0 run in the first quarter and a 3-0 run at the start of the second to take a 7-3 lead.
"It was just our offense not getting off," Cordingley said. "It was a simple thing. Right guy shoots, left guy, high guy gets to the bench or gets back and plays D and covers. We didn't do that."
Luck wasn't on Buffalo's side either, as multiple shots just barely tricked past Bandits goalie Alex Buque, who was replaced by backup Zach Higgins in the second quarter.
The Bandits made a comeback late in the second, scoring four of the last five goals of the frame to cut the Toronto lead to 8-7 at the break. The Rock went on another run to go up 11-8 in the third, but Buffalo had a golden chance to answer when Toronto's Latrell Harris took a five-minute penalty late in the third quarter.
The mistakes caught up to the team again. Toronto outscored Buffalo 2-1 while man-down as the Rock feasted on the Bandits' sleepy transition.
"We weren't smart," Cordingley said. "Five fast break goals can be prevented and it wasn't. ... Two short-man goals kills us. We've got to be smarter. You've got to play smart lacrosse in this league. When you make mistakes, they cost you."
Buffalo failed to cut Toronto's lead under three goals the rest of the way.
At 8-9, Buffalo sits in last place in the East Division heading into the final week. With New England's win Saturday, three East teams have reached nine wins: New England, Rochester and the Georgia Swarm. The Bandits need a win to at least get to that point and advance on tiebreakers, but a victory against Rochester doesn't guarantee a playoff spot for Buffalo. If Toronto beats Colorado and New England beats Georgia, the Bandits are on the outside.
Cordingley said it's like the playoffs are coming early for the Bandits, but the team is used to it at this point.
"Playoffs have been for us for six or seven weeks," Cordingley said. "We've had some good ones and we've had some bad ones. We need to put a solid 60 minutes of smart lacrosse together."
Evans and Jones each scored three goals and an assist for the Bandits. Forward Dhane Smith had a goal and four assists, while transition player Nick Weiss notched three assists.
Adam Jones and Rob Hellyer did the heavy lifting for Toronto. Each scored three goals and two assists.