By Joe Ray – Bandits.com
Toronto, ON – The term “clean slate” was thrown around numerous times this week, and it proved to be a wonderful thing for the Buffalo Bandits.
After losing eight straight games to close the regular season, the Bandits headed to Air Canada Centre to face the Toronto Rock in the first round of the NLL playoffs. Buffalo emerged victorious in a high-flying 15-13 game to advance to the NLL East Finals.
Ryan Benesch led all scorers in the game with 10 points, including seven huge goals. Mark Steenhuis added a goal and five assists, and John Tavares had two goals and two assists in the victory.
WATCH: RYAN BENESCH POST-GAME INTERVIEW
Toronto was led offensively by Colin Doyle’s three goals and five assists. Rob Hellyer added a goal and six assists in the losing effort, and Josh Sanderson (2+4) and Kasey Beirnes (4+2) had six points each for the Rock.
After scoring 14 goals in a loss to Rochester last week, Buffalo’s offense put together another phenomenal effort that gave them their first win since March 15.
“Like I said last week, playoffs are a new season, everyone’s 0-0,” Benesch said. “We came out with a gameplan and we stuck to the gameplan, and when we do that good things happen.”
“We left that last week,” Buffalo’s Shawn Williams said of the losing streak. “Obviously sports [are] sports and our dressing room knew what we were in. It’s tough on [the fans], but it’s tough on us the most. We’re a proud group and it’s a new start.”
Benesch’s phenomenal performance was just what the Bandits needed. The 29-year-old forward seemed to have Rock goaltender Brandon Miller’s number on every occasion in the victory.
“I give credit to the offense, Benesch said. “We moved the ball and moved our feet; we got some open lanes and I got some shots. It could have been Willy, Mark, JT had a few, but that’s what happens when you move the ball and stick to the gameplan we had coming into the game.”
“He’s a premier player,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley added. “I know he had his struggles during the season, but in the biggest game of the season … he goes out and gets seven. He’s well worth it.”
WATCH: TROY CORDINGLEY POST-GAME INTERVIEW
The Bandits opened the scoring in this contest with a goal from Andrew Watt, playing his first game since the Bandits’ last visit to Toronto on April 18. Doyle responded for the Rock after narrowly missing on three consecutive shots to tie the game for Toronto.
Dhane Smith’s speed in transition started the next Bandits run, finding Benesch alone in front as the forward faked his way around Miller for the goal. Two more Buffalo goals, scored by Williams and Benesch pushed the early Bandit lead to three.
A goal from Toronto’s Kasey Beirnes resulted in a 4-2 score that concluded the first quarter. The Bandits’ defense came out looking vastly improved from last week’s game against Rochester, killing off one penalty and stymieing a number of Toronto possessions.
Steenhuis improved the Bandits’ lead to 5-2 just over three minutes into the second quarter. A quick breakout pass from Rory Smith started the rush to Steenhuis, who ripped a shot narrowly over Miller’s right shoulder.
Josh Sanderson and Jamie Rooney traded goals 31 seconds apart before Rob Hellyer’s goal narrowed the Toronto deficit to two. Following a Chad Culp penalty for checking from behind, Doyle added his second of the game to extend the Toronto run.
Doyle completed his hat trick 1:22 later to tie the game at six goals apiece, but Benesch completed his own hat trick to reclaim the lead for Buffalo.
WATCH: SHAWN WILLIAMS POST-GAME INTERVIEW
The seesaw battle continued to halftime. Beirnes added his second of the game at the 12:35 mark, and Benesch tallied his fourth of the half to give Buffalo the 8-7 lead headed into halftime.
The Rock came out running the Bandits into the ground through the first five minutes following halftime. Beirnes added his third of the game to tie the game at 8-8, but Cosmo made a number of big saves to keep the tie. Smith had a wide-open breakaway chance to reclaim the lead for Buffalo, but Miller stood tall and wiped up the low shot.
Buffalo got into some big penalty trouble six minutes into the half, as Billy Dee Smith was sent off for slashing at the same time as the Bandits were served a too-many-men penalty. Sanderson scored on the 5-on-3, but the Bandits were able to kill off the other penalty.
Toronto kept Buffalo on the ropes for the majority of the third quarter. Benesch’s fifth goal trickled through the pads of Miller at the 10:37 mark, but Nick Diachenko gave Toronto the lead again less than two minutes later.
The Bandits then got three unanswered goals. Benesch closed the third quarter with yet another goal to tie the game at ten. Tavares’ power-play tally gave Buffalo the lead, and then Smith made a freakish acrobatic play on a loose ball that needed to be challenged by Cordingley to be allowed.
“That put a little more life in our feet,” Benesch said. “Dhane made a great play to grab that ball, stay out of the crease, and put it in. It pumped us up a little more, and from there we were in control.”
After Nick Diachenko cut back into the Bandits’ lead with two goals of his own, Chad Culp came up with a huge goal 24 seconds later that was the eventual game-winner.
Culp then took a roughing penalty, which led to Beirnes adding another goal with the man advantage. But Buffalo responded right away with a power play goal from Tavares, their ageless leader.
“We had the perfect angle from the bench, and he did not have much to shoot at, and he threaded it,” Cordingley said on Tavares’ goal. “Unbelievable shot, so we’ll take it.”
The Bandits now look forward to a familiar foe, as the Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks will face off in the NLL East finals.
“We’ve played them four times already this year, so we know what they’ve got and they know what we’ve got,” Benesch said. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to bring it on both nights. It’s going to be a great series, a great battle.”
While the Bandits seemed to be down and out with all the losses over the last two months, the team has remained resilient and carries a ton of momentum into the next round of the playoffs.
“At the beginning of the year I thought nobody really believed in us; a lot of people counted us out, especially after last season,” Tavares said. “We went out there and proved a lot of people wrong, had an 8-2 record, and then we went on that huge slide. It kind of feels like this is a new beginning for us, like it’s the beginning of the year.
“We’re underdogs, and I’m a sports fan. I like rooting for the underdogs. Hopefully we can continue to roll like we did at the beginning of the year.”
Tickets will go on sale May 4 at 9 a.m. for the first game between the Bandits and Knighthawks. The two teams will start their playoff series at First Niagara Center on May 10 at 7:30 p.m.