As Beach Party festivities commenced at KeyBank Center on Saturday, yet another game came down to the wire for the Buffalo Bandits.
Tied 9-9 in overtime, Chris Cloutier sent a rocket into the back of the net on the Bandits’ second possession to the win game and improve Buffalo’s record to 10-2.
Cloutier last played on December 17 and had missed the past nine games due to injury. He finished the game with five points (4+1).
“I’m excited to be back,” Cloutier said after the game. “It’s been killing me not to be able to play. That’s the longest I’ve ever been out so things have been a little different for me, and some things I’ve had to overcome, but I’m just happy to be back and part of a team again.”
Josh Byrne also had a remarkable return to the lineup. Injured during Buffalo’s game on January 28, Byrne stormed back with a team-high nine points (3+6), factoring in on all but one of the Bandits’ goals.
Dhane Smith (0+7), Kyle Buchanan (2+1), and Nathaniel Kozevnikov (1+0) also factored into the scoring for Buffalo. Halifax’s contributors in their effort included Randy Staats (2+2), Chris Boushy (3+0), Ryan Benesch (1+2), and Eric Fannell (2+0).
Matt Vinc started his 12th consecutive game in net for the Bandits this season, making 48 saves on 57 shots, while Warren Hill held down the crease for Halifax, stopping 39 of 49.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Despite quality chances from both sides, the scoreboard remained blank in the first nine minutes after big saves from both Vinc and Hill.
Byrne and Bryce Sweeting both found themselves in the box for penalties earned during a scuffle in front of the net, granting Halifax the man-advantage.
At the 3:15 mark, Randy Staats finally broke the stalemate on the power play, placing the first goal of the game past Vinc to give the Thunderbirds a 1-0 lead late into the first.
Shots from Byrne, Smith, Buchanan, and Cloutier would pile pressure onto the Thunderbirds, but Hill would hold strong, and Staats’ tally would be the only one in the first quarter, as Halifax entered the second with the narrow lead.
At the 11:51 mark of the second, Byrne made sure to reintroduce himself back to the NLL, ripping his shot past Hill’s five hole to knot the game at 1-1.
Cloutier couldn’t let Byrne have all the fun though, as he too scored in his first game back from injury, granting the Bandits their first lead of the game. Buffalo’s lead was short lived as Boushy answered only moments later, diving over the crease to slip one past Vinc. Byrne’s second of the game came at the 9:25 mark to return the narrow lead back to Buffalo.
Banditland made sure to have an effort to share in Byrne’s celebration, illustrating just how clearly he’s been missed. With 7:09 remaining in the first frame, Cloutier once again joined the scoresheet, adding his second of the game. Tyson Bell threw water on Buffalo’s fiery momentum just 33 seconds later with his first of the game.
Nathaniel Kozevnikov’s first ever NLL goal would follow, returning the two goal cushion back to Buffalo.
First career goal! ✅
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) March 11, 2023
As the buzzer for the gritty first frame sounded, the Bandits found themselves with a 5-3 lead.
Just 18 seconds into the second half, Cloutier netted his hat trick goal to double Buffalo’s lead over the Thunderbirds.
Halifax built their momentum back with adds from Staats, Boushy and Eric Fannell, evening the game at 6. With 46 seconds left in the quarter, Benesch bounced one home to give Halifax their first lead of the half. Fannell followed suit, adding his second of the game with 17.5 seconds remaining. As the final 15 minutes approached, the Bandits found themselves facing a two-goal deficit.
FOURTH QUARTER AND OVERTIME
The Thunderbirds kept their foot on the gas in the opening 30 seconds of the fourth as Boushy earned a hat trick to strengthen Halifax’s cushion.
Buchanan’s first of the game at 11:57 was a sight to see, but more importantly, his wrap-around power play goal halted the Thunderbirds’ 6-0 run.
A hat trick seemed inevitable for Byrne, whose third of the game at 7:41 cut the Bandits deficit to just one.
Cloutier’s hat trick tally at the 6:37 mark appeared to knot the game at 9 and extend he and Byrne’s friendly game of catch up with one another, but it was waved off after review, showing the shot clock had expired.
Buchanan’s second of the game put any argument to rest, as he snuck one past Hill to tie the game at 9 with 4:26 remaining in the game.
As the clock ticked down to 23.1, Tavares called a timeout in hopes of scheming up a final play to lift the Bandits over the hump.
The Bandits’ efforts were stumped after turning the ball over on a pass, leading to a final possession where Halifax could ice the game.
Vinc would not allow a regulation loss though, as his final save propelled the Bandits into overtime, where the next goal would be the deciding one.
With the possession in hand, Tavares called another timeout, and this second time around it was the charm, as Cloutier ripped the game winner past Hill at 13:02 to earn the Bandits their 10-9 victory.
THE ROAD AHEAD
With a 10-2 record, the Bandits sit atop the Eastern Conference. Buffalo will to add to their lead in the standings next week when they host the Colorado Mammoth, before heading out west to take on San Diego the following week.
Saturday’s game will mark the first time that Buffalo and Colorado meet since they faced off in the NLL Finals, where the Mammoth were crowned NLL Champions in Game 3.
Faceoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at KeyBank Center. Tickets are on sale now.