By Joe Ray – Bandits.com
After a gigantic win in Toronto to snap an eight-game losing skid, the Buffalo Bandits found a way to carry that momentum back home against the Rochester Knighthawks.
The Bandits pulled away with five goals in a stretch of 3:30 near the end of the fourth quarter to take the lead in the NLL East Finals with a 12-8 win over Rochester at First Niagara Center.
Buffalo’s veteran leaders at forward, Mark Steenhuis and John Tavares, each scored four goals in the home victory. Dhane Smith was another huge part of the win with three goals and two assists. Anthony Cosmo made 36 saves on 44 shots to earn his second career playoff win.
Rochester was led offensively by Cody Jamieson and Dan Dawson, as each recorded two goals and three assists. Cory Vitarelli added two goals and an assist, and Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc stopped 30 of 42 shots faced.
While the Bandits’ effort was at times inconsistent, the fourth-quarter run gave the team the confidence it needs moving forward in this playoff series.
“That’s gonna be the playoffs, it’s gonna be tight throughout,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “It was a fast game for me. We stuck to the gameplan, and we were fortunate to bury some goals in the fourth quarter when we needed them to just make a little bit of a spread.”
“It seemed like there were mini-runs both ways … just kind of went back and forth, and then the last one we just kind of buried [five] in a row,” Tavares said. “That was the difference was they didn’t answer our last few goals. I thought it was a well-balanced game for both teams.”
Steenhuis opened the scoring 1:05 into the game, breaking in all alone against Vinc right off the bench. Off the ensuing faceoff, a penalty was assessed to Rochester’s Dylan Evans, and Steenhuis connected with the power-play goal to put the Bandits up 2-0 in the first two minutes.
The quick start was huge after the Bandits played from behind so many times during their eight-game losing skid to end the regular season.
“Throughout our struggles this year, our tendency has been to not get that good start, that quick jump on the game," Steenhuis said. "We get down by four or five goals like we did last time we were home against [Rochester], and then we’re constantly fighting back and couldn’t get over that hump.”
The Bandits would prove unable to hold the lead, however. Goals from Cody Jamieson and Dawson tied the game at two, and then Joe Walters ripped a shot that beat Cosmo low, giving Rochester a 3-2 lead with 3:11 left in the first.
Stephen Keogh opened the scoring in the second quarter to give Rochester a 4-2 lead, but the Bandits would rush back with four unanswered goals of their own. After Chad Culp ripped home a shot from straight in front of Vinc, Tavares maneuvered his way through three Rochester defenders to tie the game at four.
After that, Tavares proved yet again that age is nothing but a number. After jumping from behind the Rochester goal, Tavares wrapped himself around the right side of the net and buried the ball into the top-left corner of the net, leaving Vinc stunned and the Buffalo crowd in awe.
“From what I remember, I was kind of in trouble in the corner,” Tavares said, describing the goal. “I got up and ran behind the net, and then with the goalie’s positioning, I knew that whatever side would be open.”
“He’s the best, everybody knows he’s the best,” Cordingley added. “I am amazed that a 45-year-old man can pick up a loose ball and score in one step behind the net, put it top-shelf, opposite side with a man draped all over him.
“Honestly, I’m comparing it to myself getting out of bed. I don’t know, it’s pretty amazing.”
Steenhuis completed his hat trick at the 9:27 mark of the second quarter, and after Buffalo gave up four unanswered goals, they found a way to muster up four of their own.
With Derek Suddons in the box for a delay-of-game call, Jamieson added his second of the game, and the Bandits and Knighthawks went into halftime with Buffalo leading by a 6-5 score.
Both defenses locked down in the third quarter, as neither Cosmo nor Vinc saw many quality shots. The first goal of the second half came from Dawson just under nine minutes into the third quarter. With 2:23 left in the quarter, Cory Vitarelli snuck free in front of Cosmo to give Rochester their second lead of the game.
Even with a six-on-five in the closing seconds of the quarter, the Bandits could not find a way to beat Vinc on ten third-quarter shots. A big reason the Bandits were able to stay in the game was Cosmo, who limited the Knighthawks to two goals in that quarter to keep Buffalo within one heading to the final stanza.
“That’s why I’ve said he’s an elite goalie,” Cordingley said of Cosmo. “He has been for some time. He makes those saves when we need them.”
It did not take long for the Bandits to get back on the scoreboard, as Smith tied the game 55 seconds into the fourth quarter, ripping a shot over Vinc’s left shoulder.
While the tie held up for almost seven minutes, Vitarelli scored his second of the game after a holding the stick penalty was assessed to Joe Resetarits.
That power play goal seemed to spark the Bandits’ offense back to life. Tavares completed his hat trick with a huge shot from the right wing, and then Smith netted two more goals in a span of 25 seconds to give Buffalo a 10-8 lead.
“Earlier on in the year, when we were 8-2, we won a lot of fourth-quarter battles,” Cordingley said. “Most of these games are going to come down to the fourth quarter. [Tavares’ third goal] seemed to give us some momentum and a lot of energy, and from there I thought that our offense was battling and winning every loose ball and doing whatever it took.”
Steenhuis and Tavares each added their fourth goals of the game, and the Bandits put the icing on the cake with over two minutes to play. With the victory, the series shifts to Rochester, where Buffalo has yet to defeat the Knighthawks this season.
“That’s what we’re in it for, that’s what we signed up at the beginning of the year for,” Cordingley said. “We know we’re going to their barn, and they’re a pretty decent team there. We know we have our work cut out for us.”
The Bandits and Knighthawks will play at Blue Cross Arena on May 17, with the game starting at 7:30 p.m. If Rochester wins that game, the two teams will play a 10-minute mini-game that will determine who advances from the NLL East.