There are a handful of ways to describe the Buffalo Bandits’ 14-5 dismantling of the Toronto Rock on Friday night in front of 11,510 at KeyBank Center, but the term “dominant” might be the most fitting.
“Usually the team that shoots most wins games. But not all the time,” Bandits coach John Tavares said. “They’re a team that takes a lot of shots. So, we actually minimized their shooting opportunity, and we almost matched their shots. That’s good because they’re a team that’s going to get 60 shots a game.”
Toronto fired 57 shots on goal. Only five of them found their way behind goaltender Matt Vinc, who made 52 saves to give the Bandits a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three East Conference Finals. Game 2 is Saturday in Hamilton, Ontario.
“He’s been unbelievable since he’s been here in Buffalo,” Dhane Smith said. “He brings that veteran leadership that we need. He’s one of the only guys who have won a championship and we lean on him.”
A championship is precisely what the Bandits have their sights set on. Toronto is the next opponent standing in their way. Friday night marked a highly anticipated matchup for two teams who have been on a postseason collision course for weeks, and the stakes couldn’t get any higher.
“I haven’t been that nervous for a game in a long time,” Smith said. “I feel like that rivalry has been around for so long.”
Immediately following the Bandits’ 20-8 demolition of the Rochester Knighthawks, which set up a matchup with the Toronto Rock in the Eastern Conference Final, Smith said the Bandits may have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Despite Buffalo being the top seed, many outsiders saw Toronto as the favorite.
“It’s easy to get up for those games,” Smith said. “Obviously, we don’t like them. They don’t like us. That’s why you play. You play because you want to play those big games, and that was a big one.”
Toronto’s defense was pegged as elite, one of the top units in the National Lacrosse League. The Bandits shot that moniker full of holes, erupting for seven straight goals before the Rock ended the scoring surge.
Josh Byrne scored five times and Smith racked up eight assists as Buffalo’s prolific offense forced their opponent’s starting goaltender from the net for the second-straight game.
“It seems like this season as opposed to other years, he (Byrne) is learning how to put his foot down on the pedal and keep going, not be satisfied,” Tavares said. “He gets in a rhythm, and he gets confidence, and you can see it. He wants to shoot more as opposed to backing off and hesitating.”
The Bandits were equally impressive on the defensive end of the floor, holding Toronto scoreless for an 18-minute stretch that spanned three quarters .
“That’s very rare,” Smith said. “They (Toronto) have a great offense too. We were able to get in their hands. It’s easy to play offense when they’re not all over you. I think we kind of disrupted what wanted to gameplan.”
Toronto’s fourth goal came with 3:32 to play in the second quarter. They wouldn’t find the back of the net again until the fourth quarter.
“That was a combination of both Matty playing well and when the defense broke down a little bit, then Matty was there to shut the door,” Tavares said. “When you have a goalie like that, defense can risk and more pressure.”
Challen Rogers (three goals) and Tom Schreiber (two goals) handled all the scoring for Toronto. Starting goaltender Nick Rose was replaced by Troy Holowchuk in the third quarter.
“It would be nice to finish tomorrow and carry over what happened tonight,” Tavares said. “We’re going to see a different team tomorrow night, I’m sure tomorrow is going to be a tighter game.”
How it happened
For the second straight game, Byrne put the Bandits on the board first with one of his five goals just 30 seconds into the game.
Toronto evened the score at 1-1 with Schreiber’s first marker at 10:22.
Tekhoka Nanticoke put the Bandits back in front with a highlight-reel goal. Nanticoke spun to his right, shielding a defender as he raced towards the crease. He fired a shot past Rose to put Buffalo up 2-1.
Chase Fraser gave Buffalo a 3-1 lead, but Toronto answered with a goal by Rogers to make the score 3-2.
The Bandits added to their lead when Justin Robinson faked out a defender in transition as he entered the offensive zone and found himself all alone on Rose. He zipped the ball past the goalie to give the Bandits a 4-2 lead with 5:25 to play.
With 3:54 left Toronto’s Stephen Koegh laid a pick on Byrne, drawing a penalty for an illegal body check.
Less than 25 seconds later Byrne was whistled for a penalty of his own for holding to force both teams to play at 4-on-4. Rodgers scored his second on the game during the 4-on-4 to pull Toronto within one at 4-3 with 2:28 to play.
The scoring dried up during the first nine minutes of the second quarter.
Byrne scored two-straight goals 29 seconds apart to give Buffalo a 6-3 lead. Byrne’s first came in transition, taking a feed from Dhane Smith and zipping the ball past Rose. His second, for the hat trick, came on a rocket from the right side.
Toronto’s Rodgers quieted the crowd with a late-quarter goal, his third of the game, at 3:32 to cut the
Rock’s deficit to 6-4.
Nanticoke re-established Buffalo’s three-goal lead with his second goal of the game at 2:37 to give the Bandits a 7-4 lead.
Buffalo began the third quarter on the power play after Chris Corbeil took a holding penalty with 33 seconds left. Fraser beat Rose as the power play was expiring to give the Bandits an 8-4 lead.
Ian MacKay scored a breakaway goal for the second-straight game to give Buffalo a 9-4 lead. MacKay forced a Toronto turnover and raced in on Rose to give Buffalo a five-goal advantage.
Byrne added his fourth goal of the game as Buffalo began to pull away and built a 10-4 lead with 8:55 to play.
Kyle Buchanan drew a penalty at one end of the floor and snapped a shot past Rose to give the Bandits an 11-4 lead on the delayed penalty. Buchanan’s goal ended Rose’s night in net, giving way to Troy Holowchuk.
Holowchuk didn’t fare much better between the pipes for Toronto, surrendering a goal on Buffalo’s first shot to Byrne, his fifth of the game to give Buffalo a 12-4 lead.
Nanticoke appeared to have scored a hat-trick of his own on a wraparound goal from below the goal line, but the play was reviewed, and referees determined Nanticoke’s hand was in the crease before the ball crossed the goal line.
Chris Cloutier scored a power-play goal in the final seconds of the third period to restore the 13-7 lead.
Toronto broke an 18:53 scoreless drought with Schreiber’s second goal of the game 21 seconds into the fourth quarter make the score 13-5.
Cloutier tallied his second marker of the game on the power play with 6:28 to play to help the Bandits claim the final score, 14-5.