The Buffalo Bandits head down south this weekend to face the Georgia Swarm for the first game of a home-and-home set. The series begins Saturday in Duluth, Georgia and concludes January 14 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo. Tickets for that game are on sale now.
Faceoff at Gas South Arena on Saturday is slated for 7 p.m. on ESPN+ and 1520 AM.
After having an early bye week and the holiday break between their first three games of the season, the Bandits are looking forward to getting into a routine, with weekly contests for the next month.
“The season can kind of get rolling now,” head coach John Tavares said following Friday’s 18-13 victory over the Halifax Thunderbirds. “It took a month to get two games in, which is quite a bit. So, it’s nice when you get in that routine of seeing the guys more often.
“With a lot of change on offense, you need to be together and get used to people’s habits, what they like to do and don’t like to do, and what works and what doesn’t work. The more we’re together, the better we’re going to get.”
With the win, the Bandits (2-1) moved up to second place in the Eastern Conference standings, sitting below the Rochester Knighthawks (3-0).
“…I think we’re going in the right direction,” alternate captain Dhane Smith said. “With that being said, I know we play Georgia. They’re hungry for a win, and we can’t take them lightly.”
The Swarm (0-2) currently sit in seventh place in the East after dropping close home contests to the Knighthawks and Philadelphia Wings.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
Last time out
The Bandits closed out 2022 on a high note, winning their second game in a row behind seven goals and five assists from Josh Byrne at KeyBank Center.
Byrne, who tied a career-best for goals in a game, spoke highly of his teammates for grinding it out against their division rival.
“I’m just super proud of the boys and how we just battled back,” Byrne said. “You know, starting 0-1 against Albany was a big hit for us. For us to go into Toronto and battle one out there, and then come here and have a big statement game against Halifax, it says a lot about our group.”
For his efforts against the Thunderbirds, Byrne was named the NLL Player of the Week on Wednesday.
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) January 4, 2023
Smith attributed the win to staying focused on offense and feeding the hot hand.
“We just stuck with the offense. He (Josh) was obviously feeling it… and he’s a great player,” Smith said after the game.
“Even when he’s not scoring goals, he’s doing the dirty work. He’s one of our backbones on offense. It’s pretty cool to see him go off like that.”
Smith posted an 11-point performance of his own, with a second-half hat trick and a season-best eight assists.
Kyle Buchanan recorded a five-point night (1+4) while Nick Weiss tallied a goal and three assists and Tehoka Nanticoke registered a pair of goals and an assist.
Goaltender Matt Vinc made 44 stops in net and is now one win shy of tying Anthony Cosmo for the second-most wins in Bandits history (38).
“He keeps us in the game every game,” Smith said. “I know he was frustrated with letting eight goals in the first half, and it wasn’t even his fault, which is crazy. But he bounced back, and he played unbelievable.”
Buffalo and Halifax traded goals in the first half to go into break tied 8-8.
The Bandits opened the third quarter with five straight goals from Smith, Nanticoke, Buchanan, Ian MacKay, and Byrne.
With 2:45 remaining in the third, the Thunderbirds scored their first goal of the quarter after being held without a goal for over 12 minutes.
Matt Spanger tallied a shorthanded goal in transition at the 10:53 mark of the final frame, sparking a 3-1 scoring run by the Bandits to secure the win.
“Those transition goals get the offense going,” Smith said. “We kind of were at two, three goals, and we couldn’t get past that point. I know Spanger had a huge one towards the end and it kind of broke the ice. Those ones just get the offense going because it’s a relief for us.”
A balanced attack
In the victory against Halifax, the Bandits leaned on consistency on offense while also receiving key contributions from their transition team and defense. Of the 19 field players dressed, 13 of them registered at least a point, including nine players with multi-point performances.
This was without forward Chris Cloutier who was placed on injured reserve on December 27 with an upper-body injury. Cloutier played a vital role in the Bandits’ offense prior to his injury, recording four goals and five assists between in two games.
Thomas Vaesen entered the lineup in Cloutier’s absence, notching two assists in his first career NLL game.
“He did the little things and I know each game he is just going to get that much better,” Smith said. “It’s hard to replace Cloutier, but it’s next man up, and I think he did a great job.”
Brothers Brandon and Dylan Robinson each scored once while transition players Dalton Sulver, MacKay, and Weiss all had multi-point nights.
Dylan’s goal was the first of his NLL career and Sulver extended his point streak to two games.
Defensemen Ethan O’Connor, Spanger, and captain Steve Priolo each added an assist in transition.
Tavares explained that Cloutier’s injury gives some fresh faces the opportunity to step up in the offensive end.
“It gives an opportunity to other guys to pick it up,” Tavares said. “It opens the door for Vaesen and Robinson, and you see Tehoka going to the net a lot more, he’s getting the ball more often. So, an opportunity for other people to rise.”
In the meantime, Cloutier will focus on making a difference through his leadership.
“For the rest of us, it’s more just about rallying around him,” Byrne said. “He’s been a really good teammate, helping out guys like Vaesen, Brad McCulley, and doing his best to take on that leadership role.
“We’re obviously going to have to try to adjust without Clooch in the lineup, but he’s going to do a really good job, as well, of making sure he’s being a great teammate and helping these guys out.”
Bandits among league leaders
Entering Week 6, the Bandits have four players among the league’s stat leaders.
After his seven-goal performance versus Halifax, Byrne took over third in goals with 11 this season, behind Curtis Dickson (13) and former Bandit Connor Fields (12).
Smith is tied for first in the NLL with 18 assists in three games. His team-best 22 points are tied for fourth in the NLL with Saskatchewan’s Robert Church.
Weiss currently sits tied for first with five blocked shots during the 2022-23 campaign and is riding a three-game point streak.
Vinc’s 123 saves this season are good for fourth-best in the league.
The home-and-home series marks the only two meetings between Buffalo and Georgia this season.
The Bandits hold a 25-12 advantage over the Swarm in the all-time series, including a 12-6 record at Gas South Arena.
Last season, the Bandits swept the season series with a 12-10 win on January 14 and an 18-9 victory over the Swarm on April 16.
New year, new milestones
Heading into 2023, the Bandits will look to reach new heights and achieve more milestones as the season progresses.
With five assists against the Thunderbirds, Byrne took over sole possession of sixth all-time in the Bandits record book in the category.
Tavares also took over third place in coaching wins with 37. He will now chase Troy Cordingley (46) for the second-most wins behind the bench in franchise history.
Smith currently ranks third in team history with 526 assists and is nine assists shy of tying Mark Steenhuis for second all-time (535).
Buchanan is six goals away from reaching 200 in his career.