By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
Before the season opener, legendary Buffalo Bandits player-turned-assistant coach John Tavares was asked what the team needed to do to return to the postseason after a last-place finish in 2017.
“In this league – in any league – you’ve got to win your home games.”
Needing a win to stay alive in the playoff race, the Bandits were unable to take care of business at home. Buffalo was eliminated from contention as the Rochester Knighthawks clinched a playoff spot with a 15-13 victory in the regular season finale at KeyBank Center on Saturday night.
“They never quit and they battled right until the bitter end,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “But we make life hard on ourselves. Off to a good start again and just couldn’t continue that...credit to Rochester. They’re an awfully good team. They’re a veteran team. Got a lot of guys on that team that have won some championships. They know what it takes and we’re still trying to figure that out.”
The matchup was as competitive as expected in a must-win game for both of the longtime rivals. But it was Buffalo’s third-straight loss, the fourth defeat in their last five home games, that sealed their fate in the playoff race.
Early on, the Bandits seemed to be up to the challenge. Shawn Evans opened the scoring 1:37 into the game with his 400th career goal. Minutes later, Jordan Durston dangled in tight to give Buffalo an early 2-0 lead.
But Rochester would answer right back. Cody Jamieson beat Bandits goalie Zach Higgins with a one-hopper a minute later before defenseman Paul Dawson scored a rare goal, his third of the season, to tie it 2-2.
Another Knighthawks goal put them ahead 3-2 before Mitch Jones got the equalizer with 38 seconds remaining to end Rochester’s scoring run.
Just as he’s done many times throughout his illustrious career, Jamieson, the former NLL MVP, came through in the clutch with a quick-stick goal with 20.7 left in the quarter to make it 4-3 after 15 minutes.
Knighthawks defensive standout Graeme Hossack scored in transition on the penalty kill to extend their lead to two goals but Dhane Smith would convert on the same power play to pull Buffalo within one at 5-4.
Rochester strung together a pair of tallies 1:21 apart midway through the second quarter to lead by three until Durston scored a pretty behind-the-back goal 40 seconds later to cut the deficit to 7-5.
On the break with numbers, Bandits defender Mitch de Snoo fed Jones who found the net for his second of the night to make it a one-goal game with less than four minutes on the clock.
The building erupted when Evans scored an overhander to knot the score at 7-7 with 51.5 seconds left in the first half. However, the celebration didn’t last long.
Reminiscent of the unlucky bounce off a Buffalo offensive possession that resulted in a title-clinching breakaway goal for the Saskatchewan Rush in the final seconds of the 2016 NLL Finals, Rochester’s Brad Gillies raced in uncontested and beat the buzzer to regain an 8-7 advantage at the break.
“Those are tough,” Smith said. “We had momentum going into the second half and we kind of blew the goal at the end. That kind of hurt us there.”
The first shot of the second half tied the game at 8-8 as Jones got his hat trick 29 seconds into the third quarter. Rochester went back on top until Evans’ hat trick goal tied the game for the fifth time.
Suddenly, the wheels appeared to fall off for the Bandits. Rochester scored four-straight goals in less than three minutes to chase Higgins, who was making just his second start of the year, to the bench in favor of Alex Buque and take a commanding 13-9 lead after the third quarter.
“We make decisions as a staff,” Cordingley said about the goaltending call. “Not just on a whim. We look at certain things. Certain matchups. How guys have played against teams and things like that. And for the most part, I thought ‘Higgy’ was real good. When we made the change, we were just trying to spark a change in momentum...and it worked. But it was too late.”
An early fourth-quarter goal by Joe Resetarits widened the margin to 14-9. With their backs against the wall, Buffalo showed some life with three goals in just over three minutes to trail 14-12 with nine-plus minutes remaining.
Buffalo then turned up the intensity on defense, winning loose ball battles and laying it all on the line. The added aggressiveness ultimately proved costly when Kevin Brownell was assessed a five-minute major for high sticking with 5:19 left in regulation.
“I thought we did a good job of keeping our composure and playing with an edge but not crossing the line,” Jones said while choosing his words carefully. “With five minutes left to go there, that’s a tough one to take. You watch playoffs in any sport, that’s not...that kills ya. Even after that, we did our best to battle back.”
Playing conservatively with the man advantage to avoid any odd-man rushes, Rochester allowed Smith to sneak by and score shorthanded in transition to make it a one-goal game with just over a minute left.
The Bandits won the ensuing faceoff after a scrum and called timeout with 52.4 on the clock as the sold-out crowd of 19,070 reached a fever pitch with a loud “Let’s Go Bandits” chant.
“The crowd was amazing tonight,” Smith said. “I haven’t seen it like that in a very, very long time. They were behind us and we can’t give them enough credit.”
With the goalie pulled, Buffalo set up one final attempt to tie the game but a pass in front to a wide-open Durston didn’t connect.
“It was one of those bounces that maybe he could have tied it up at the end but it didn’t come down to that play,” Smith said. “Brownell, he was beating himself up too. Yeah, he took a five-minute [penalty]. But at the same time, we could have been up at that time. Just one of those games.”
Rochester played keep away in the offensive zone and eventually scored past defenseman Steve Priolo, who was manning the Bandits’ net, with 18.9 remaining to secure their spot in the playoffs with a 10-8 record while ending Buffalo’s season.
“We play like we did in that game – minus the three-minute lapse we had – in any of those previous two or three games we lost, we’re in the playoffs,” Priolo said. “You keep looking back and saying ‘what if?’...it came down to this game and we didn’t perform.”
Missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001 and 2002, it will be another long offseason for a Bandits team that finished at 8-10, an improved campaign compared to last year’s 6-12 mark.
“Definitely a more enjoyable year than last year,” Jones said. “It might not seem like it right now. But we had a great group of guys in there. I think a lot of guys did a lot of good things. We can almost sum up the season in this game. We were close. But not quite there.”