By Chris Ryndak – Bandits.com
The Buffalo Bandits are going to the playoffs.
The team has experienced a very up-and-down season with lows reaching the depths of a franchise-record six-game losing streak that got so bad that some players wondered if the team would ever win again.
But with their 14-9 victory over the Rochester Knighthawks in front of a sold-out First Niagara Center on Saturday, the Bandits (6-9) ensured that they would be playing for the Champion's Cup by securing the NLL’s eighth and final playoff spot.
“Now the hard work really begins,” said Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour. “The first goal of every team is to make the playoffs. The second goal is to win a championship so we just completed one of our goals. I wish it was under different circumstances, but the boys played well.”
The Bandits offense was firing on all cylinders for most of the night against Rochester (6-9) and the team received another great performance from goaltender Anthony Cosmo. The Bandits starter made 46 saves on 55 shots.
“They had a lot of good opportunities. He played really well and at other times we did a real good job of giving them bad angle shots and shots under pressure,” Kilgour said of Cosmo’s play.
Mark Steenhuis led the Bandits offense with four goals and four assists and Luke Wiles chipped in three goals and an assist.
John Tavares ended up with two assists and five shots on goal, making it the first game this season in which he has failed to score a goal. He had the chances and even had a breakaway opportunity late in the fourth quarter, but opted instead to take the ball into the corner and run out the clock. Despite his lack of production, the offense didn’t seem to miss a beat.
“I think it says a lot about what we can do when the ball’s hot and everybody’s sticking to the game plan,” Kilgour said.
“J.T., I don’t know what he was doing tonight. He passed up a lot of good opportunities. I kept telling him, ‘Just shoot it. Just shoot it. I don’t care if the guy’s in your shooting lane. You’ve got 2,000 points, 1,500 points, whatever. Whoever you’re thinking about passing it to is probably 1,500 points behind you. He passed up a lot of good opportunities tonight. I just wish we would have taken more shots.”
Wiles opened the scoring at the 4:39 mark but was quickly answered when Tyler Burton tied the game six seconds later. Buffalo then went on a 3-0 run through the second quarter with goals from Chad Culp, Tracey Kelusky, Mark Steenhuis and another from Wiles.
Kelusky returned to the lineup after missing the last three games with a concussion. He finished his night with two goals and an assist.
“He’s a guy I love playing with,” said forward Mat Giles, who finished with two goals and four assists. “He’s so smart and slick with his stick. Banging around with him is always fun.”
Steenhuis’ tally was his 300th career goal with Buffalo. He joined Tavares as the only members of the Bandits’ 300-Goal Club.
The Bandits went into the dressing room at halftime with a 6-2 lead.
Rochester came on strong to start the second half. Although Giles, voted the season’s Unsung Hero by his teammates, scored 1:04 into the third quarter, the Knighthawks stormed back to cut the Bandits lead to 7-5.
Wiles got the Bandits offense going with his third goal of the game with 8:32 left in the third. Steenhuis added another with 6:16 to go to really ignite the crowd. Kevin Buchanan added his ninth of the season with 3:03 to play. Kelusky added to the run with his second of the night at the to cap off the 4-0 run to end the quarter.
The Bandits didn’t let up in the fourth quarter. Buffalo scored three goals in a span of 1:54 with two more from Steenhuis and another from Giles. Cory Vitarelli broke that run with a goal with 8:46 left.
Once again, the Knighthawks wouldn’t go away quietly. Following Vitarelli’s goal, Jarrett Davis Mike Accursi scored 42 seconds apart to cut the Bandits’ lead to six. Then Vitarelli scored again with 4:35 left in regulation to make it a 14-9 game.
“A three-goal swing is big in our league and momentum’s big,” Cosmo said. “Luckily, we had a seven point lead because they came back pretty hard.”
Rochester’s attack was led by Jamieson, who finished with a goal and three assists. Vitarelli scored three times and Davis finished with two goals and an assist. Matt Vinc made 24 saves on 38 shots before being replaced by Jake Henhawk early in the fourth quarter.
The Bandits next travel to Washington for a 10:30 p.m. EST face off against the Stealth in Washington on April 28. With Washington out of the playoffs and the Bandits’ postseason ticket punched, Kilgour said the main goal for his team is to stay healthy and keep a rhythm going into the playoffs.
While the playoff match-ups in the West Division are set, the seedings in the East are still up for grabs.
Buffalo will open the playoffs on the road as either the third or fourth seed in the East. A Knighthawks win over Philadelphia next Saturday will make the Bandits the No. 4 seed; A Knighthawks loss to Philadelphia will lock the Bandits into the third spot.