Features | 5/23/2011 1:50:10 PM | Michael Jafari
| John Tavares (Photo: Bill Wippert)|
The Buffalo Bandits’ 2011 season is in the books, and now the players will have the entire offseason to reflect on the season that was the Bandits’ 20th anniversary.
One player who can use the well-deserved rest is John Tavares, who at 42-years-old led the Bandits with 32 goals and 78 points in 16 regular season games as he helped the Bandits to a 10-6 record in the regular season, a first-place finish in the East Division and an appearance in the Eastern Division Finals. His 78 points marked the seventh-highest total in a league where the average player age is 25-years-old. His stellar season earned him a spot on the NLL’s All-Pro Team for the 18th time in his illustrious career.
“I’m not sure how that happened quite honestly, but I somehow managed to get 78 points. Obviously it wasn’t enough, because we didn’t win (the championship), but some games I am feeling a lot better than other days, and it feels good that I am still able to produce,” said a humble Tavares. “When you’re my age, and you’re not producing, you are considered washed up. You can’t afford to have many bad games. When you’re 25 and you have a bad night, it’s a bad night. I didn’t play very well in the first game, and I heard a lot of ‘he’s washed-up’ rumblings, so I just added that fuel to the fire and used that as motivation.”
Buffalo had a surprising year to some, as the team was able to go on a mid-season hot-streak and become the best team in the East Division. Despite its regular season success, Buffalo was unable to carry it over into the postseason as the team was eliminated in the second round of the NLL Playoffs, thus robbing the team of a chance at a fifth championship. Although the loss was a disappointing end for the Bandits’ season, the team still has plenty to be proud of and has a lot of promise going into the 2012 campaign.
“I think our team came together,” said Tavares. “We have a great bunch of guys, and we got along very well. I thought we gelled together very well and did well up to the last few games in the regular season. We definitely had a championship team. Unfortunately, no one will remember this year, because we didn’t win it all. All we can do is remember how much upside we had in 2011 and take it into the next season and build off of it.”
The Bandits didn’t open the regular season the way they would have liked to as the team fell to the Calgary Roughnecks by a score of 10-9 on the road. Tavares particularly remembers that game, which saw the forward managed just one assist despite taking 11 shots. The loss did cause a little worry for the team, but Tavares knew the squad had the ability to rebound from the game.
“When we lost our first game in Calgary, I remember all the talk of how bad we were, but we knew there was no reason to push the panic button yet,” recalled Tavares. “I think in the beginning, we had a lot of new faces on offense, so it took some time for us to gel and get used to one another in terms of how we play. I don’t think a lot of people really thought we had much of a team, but since we had the best defense in the league, it made more time for us to gel offensively. Once we got better on offense, the defense kept up, and we started to make a run.”
After the Bandits’ loss to Calgary, the team moved to a middling 2-2 record through the first four games. However, the Bandits were able to pick it up and win eight of their next ten games. The midseason surge elevated the Bandits to first place in the East Division with a 10-6 record. Although “J.T.” led the offense, the All-Star was quick to recognize that the Bandits’ defense was the biggest reason for their regular season success.
“Having veterans helps in the changing room and the floor, but a lot of credit has to go to our coaching staff, defense and our goaltenders. The defense has been the backbone of our team, because our offense didn’t score more than nine goals in a lot of games. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but we know we needed to score more than 10 goals a game to win the championship,” said Tavares.
One of the biggest reasons for the team’s success could arguably be the rapid growth of the team’s young players. Second-year defenseman Chris Corbeil led the team with 121 loose balls and logged a lot of important minutes in crucial situations for the Bandits. Corbeil’s superior defensive skills gained national recognition, as he was added to Team Canada’s roster for the upcoming World Indoor Lacrosse Championship.
Another young player who made a lot of noise was Travis Irving. The Bandits’ 2010 first round draft choice was a key contributor in the team’s defensive scheme, and the defenseman was able to crack the team’s lineup 10 out of 16 games as a rookie. Tavares points out that both rookies were important pieces to the team’s accomplishments in 2011.
“Those guys played well. Chris was great in his second year, especially in transition and loose balls, which really impressed the guys. I was surprised about how well Travis Irving played because he took advantage of his opportunities in limited playing time, mostly because he followed what the coaches wanted from him,” said Tavares. “Darris (Kilgour) does a great job with the defense, and I always believed that defense wins championships. You build from the back-end up, which is what the Bandits are all about. Once our offense picks it up next year, our guys will gel a lot faster and produce a lot more.”
The Bandits earned the right to play the fourth-place Boston Blazers in the first round of the NLL playoffs. Buffalo almost played a picture perfect game, until Boston rallied back with four straight goals to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. However, Buffalo was able to still come out on top after Tavares netted the game-winner with 40 seconds left to give the Bandits an 11-10 victory.
Tavares has scored many big goals in his career, but he has scored very few like this one. The veteran suffered a calf injury during the game that held him to limited action during the second half. While J.T.’s goal was surely one of the greatest moments of the season, the Blazers’ late rally was also an eye-opener for the forward.
“At that time, it was a big goal, but now the goal doesn’t mean that much because of the way our season ended,” Tavares said of his playoff game-winner. “I thought that was one of the best games we played all year, because we dominated Boston other than the last five minutes of the game, and in lacrosse you can’t afford to take any time off because goals can be scored very quickly, as we saw in that matchup.”
The Bandits’ next task was to take on their rivals from north of the boarder in the Eastern Division Finals. The Toronto Rock finished the regular season with the same record as the Bandits and were a team that had several tight battles with Buffalo throughout the year. To make the challenge ever greater, Tavares’ injury status was questionable leading up to the game due to the calf injury he suffered the week before. In addition to Tavares, another important offensive player in Roger Vyse was also dealing with an injury, which forced the coaching staff to make a tough roster adjustment just prior to the opening face-off and sit the Bandits’ all-time leading scorer.
“I felt good enough to go, but I didn’t know if I was going to last. I spoke to the coaching staff on how I was feeling, and Roger Vyse wasn’t feeling all that great, however he was in better shape than I was. Since we were both offensive players, the staff decided it wouldn’t be worth dressing both of us just in case one of us went down, which I understood,” said a disappointed Tavares. “It was hard to argue, and I was disappointed, but I looked at it as if I played, I probably would have pulled my calf muscle and missed the championship. It was basically what game I should have played between the semi-finals and the championships, where I obviously made the wrong choice, but with Roger hurt it was easy for the staff to sit me.”
Vyse was able to play through his injury as he scored three goals in the game. The forward would also go on to lead the Bandits in goals (7) and points (9) through two postseason games.
Another player who came through in a crucial time was second-year forward Kyle Clancy. Clancy was Tavares’ last minute replacement in what was the most important game of his career, and the kid was clutch. Clancy scored four goals and added an assist in the Bandits’ 12-11 loss to Toronto, but made a statement that he is ready to make a name for himself in the league.
“Clancy is a great player, and he has a lot of upside because he has a lot of qualities you can’t teach to other lacrosse players. He has a lot of smarts, he’s shifty, a great passer and he can score in many ways,” said an impressed Tavares. “He creates a lot of opportunities for himself and other players on the team, and if he keeps that up, he’ll be one of our top players for years to come.”
Although the team was able to get strong contributions from Clancy and Vyse, they were still unable to overcome an early 6-0 deficit and ended up dropping the second round matchup by a score of 12-11. It was the second straight year the Bandits were ousted by Toronto, which went on to win the 2011 Champions Cup the following week against Washington.
“That’s the thing about the one playoff game, because anything can happen. Toronto was the better team that night, but having them win reminds you that we should have been there, and we were just a win away from the championship,” said Tavares. “It adds fuel to the fire because we were so close, but what stings more is that this is the second straight time they bumped us off in the playoffs. It’s very frustrating.”
Although the 2011 season ended to the dismay of the team, the Bandits still have a lot to look forward to with a strong core of veterans, including four NLL All-Stars, as well as a promising group of young, up-and-coming players. Tavares notes that if the younger guys can continue their progress into next season, the team will be in great shape for a long time.
“Everyone should be optimistic. We need more guys like Clancy, who are not afraid to pick it up and don’t wait around for the veterans on the team to pick it up. Guys like Clancy and Vyse did a nice job this year, but now they’re going to need to do it all the time. I remember guys like myself, Darris, Troy Cordingley and others went out there and didn’t wait for the veterans to do it, because we tried to make the team better, and that’s what the younger guys need to realize. They’re on the team for a reason, so they can’t wait around for the other guys because they need to do their job really well.”
Now that the season has come to a close, the players will have plenty of time to reflect on the season and prepare for next year. Tavares will join Bandit teammates Clancy, Mark Steenhuis, Tracey Kelusky and Mike Thompson in playing for the Peterborough Lakers in Major Series Lacrosse this summer in hopes of staying in shape for the upcoming NLL season.
“It’s really tough on my body, and I have been playing lacrosse since I was 4 years old, so that’s a lot of lacrosse. I hope I can play five more years, and if I can, I will try, but I think that is highly unlikely,” said Tavares. “I’m going to play in Peterborough this summer again. Although my body could use the rest, I feel if I take the summer off, it would do more harm than good. I need to stay in shape and make sure I don’t lose any more steps.”
Although Tavares is playing lacrosse this summer and is looking forward to the Bandits’ 21st season, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer is still undecided if he’ll be able to continue his professional lacrosse career. The legend was able to return from a knee injury last season and suffered a calf injury late in the playoffs that will take significant time to heal. Although the injuries aren’t alone career threatening, the wear and tear on Tavares’ body could still be the deciding factor on whether he will be able to suit up for the black and orange again.
If Tavares were to hang up the cleats, the legend would be walking away from an illustrious 20-year career where he has scored 724 goals, 823 assists and 1,547 points. Tavares is also the only player to both score over 500 goals and notch over 500 assists. Banditland would love to see number 11 back on the turf, and Tavares hears their pleas.
“We loved all the support they gave us, and we totally appreciate it. We get really pumped up when we see them in the stands and there is a lot of upside going into next season,” said Tavares about the Bandit fans. “I don’t know for sure if I’m playing next year just yet, because I’ll have to see how summer lacrosse goes. I hope to be back next season, but it will depend on my health.”