It was only fitting that the Buffalo Bandits rode into Denver for their game against the Colorado Mammoth at the same time the 114th annual National Western Stock Show was in full swing.
Cowboys, cowgirls, horse traders, cow herders, and ranch hands came from all over the country to show their stuff during scheduled events at the Denver Coliseum and stockyards, including two rodeos a day during the 17-day run.
The match between the Bandits and Mammoth offered a nice reprieve for an evening of indoor lacrosse with the folks from out of town, who mixed with the regular fans and enjoyed all the goings-on. I grew up in Denver, and like Buffalo, a welcome mat at every door is in earnest. And the Mammoth organization did not disappoint.
Everybody had a great time, and the two teams put on a good show with a very entertaining game.
They were treated to a great performance by one of the best sharpshooters in the game, Josh Byrne. Why, even one of the cowgirls who was in from Wyoming to compete in the barrel racing event at the stock show stopped me on the Pepsi Center concourse (when she saw my Bandits knapsack) and said, “That Josh Byrne might be No. 22 in the program, but he’s No. 1 in my heart.”
True to his impeccable form, Byrne won the hearts of many fans, especially those listening and watching the game back home in Buffalo, with his amazing seven-goal performance.
And, yes, he dashed the hearts of many loyal Mammoth fans with his dazzling display, which included a behind-the-back goal (No. 4 on SportsCenter’s Top 10), an opposite-side goal, a flying overhand goal, a toe-drag goal, and his second penalty shot conversion in two straight games.
The Denver Fire Department was on call to extinguish the twine that was wrapped around the goal nets.
In 19:41 of action Saturday night, Byrne scored, on average, every 2:48, or once every other shift! The first-overall draft pick in 2017 now has six hat tricks, leads the NLL in shooting percentage (28%) and is second in goal scoring with 17.
When Byrne joined me on the radio at halftime, he, of course, deferred all the credit to his teammates.
“You know what, the boys are really moving the ball well. Every single one of our guys out there can score. I’m getting some good chances to kind of get in tight there, so we are going keep trying to work that,” Byrne, who at the time had already scored four goals, said.
Following the exciting 13-12 overtime win for the Bandits, Byrne’s seven-goal performance established a new NLL individual high this season and fell one short of the Bandits franchise single-game record, set by former Bandit Mark Steenhuis, who scored eight goals on Feb. 20, 2009.
In just three seasons, the game is starting to slow down for the daunting 6-foot-2, 200-pound forward.
“Yeah, I’m starting to figure it out, getting more comfortable, and, to be honest with you, I’m starting to have more fun with it,” Byrne said. “Personally, I play a lot better when I’m having fun.”
Byrne represents the current day player in the NLL with his athletic ability, the prowess of the game, his size and strength and, most importantly, his personality.
It’s Your Shot
Bandits head coach John Tavares loves the creativity and the confidence the Bandit forwards have in taking quality shots. He should know (as one of the greatest to ever play the game) and therefore, he is very careful about making shot recommendations.
“I do a bit, but I try not to get in their heads as a lot of offensive guys are very sensitive towards what they think works,” he said. “They are confident in their abilities in certain situations, and certain shots, releases.
“When I played, I didn’t like people telling exactly where to shoot because I had my own idea and it kind of conflicted with what I thought. I try carefully tell them where to shoot. I like to tell them a goalie’s weakness and if you can hit that spot, go for it. If you can’t, just take your shot.
“You gotta be able to hit that spot if you are aiming for it. And if you don’t have that shot in your repertoire, then it kind of puts a little pressure on you to take a different shot, which I don’t like. At the end of the day, the guys have to put the ball into the net.”
A Look at the Team
The whole complement of Bandits forwards are playing exceptionally well, even with Chris Cloutier out of the lineup with a lower-body injury.
And that includes Dhane Smith, who leads the club in scoring and is playing the main set-up man with Byrne. The two remind me of Pat Lafontaine and Alexander Mogilny back in the early ’90s with the Sabres.
Smith’s assist on Byrne’s game-tying goal last weekend was the 400th of his career. Smith finished with six assists.
Defensively, the group continues to soak shots, play aggressive and capture loose balls to force the transition game.
Mitch de Snoo scoped up 13 loosie’s Saturday night to eclipse his 500th career loose ball (now 506). The fifth-year Bandit assisted on Kevin Brownell’s goal, which made it his 100th career point.
Matt Vinc enters the week with an .801 save percentage. The veteran keeper made his 8,000th career save following the ninth Colorado shot. He finished with 41 saves.
Speaking for the team and his five seasons with the Bandits, de Snoo said these consecutive games are starting to show the team’s identity.
“I think we are in the midst of finding ourselves as a team right now,” he said. “In the past, we’ve had some ups and downs with some really good teams, some teams that have been not so successful. Now, especially at the begging of this year being so weird with so many bye weeks, this is a good opportunity for us to find our identity and show who we are as a team.”
Last Saturday night in Denver, you could see this team coming together, playing stronger with confidence.
Time to saddle up and head home to Buffalo.
The Bandits have won three straight and now stand 4-1 on the season, which places them in second place of the Northern Division and second overall in the loop with New England.
Rochester comes to town for a rare Friday night game. Don’t forget the opening faceoff will go at 7:30 p.m. The Knighthawks are 1-5 on the season and have lost three straight games on the road. The Hawks are coming off a bye week, having lost to Philadelphia 12-4 back on Jan. 19.
Holden Cattoni and former Bandit Shawn Evans lead the way in scoring. Too, former Bandit defenseman Matthew Bennett leads Rochester with seven caused turnovers.
Broadcast coverage of Friday night’s game will be on B/R Live and WGR Sports Radio 550, as well our affiliate in Salamanca, WGWE 105.9 FM.
The radio pregame will start at 7 p.m. Steve Bermel joins me in the booth while Dave Buchanan will be between the benches.
To watch on B/R Live, you can purchase the game separately, by the month or remainder of the season on their website.