As expected, Saturday night’s game in Albany was exciting. It was one of those grab-and-go games where overtime was only fair. Thankfully, the Bandits prevailed 22 seconds into the extra session with Kyle Buchanan’s game-winner for the 12-11 final.
The Bandits 9-1 record is the best start since 2003. And that creates more of a target on the team’s back.
“You can say that about us, but Halifax is right there, Toronto knocked us off too, yeah, we always have a target on our back, there is no doubt,” said Bandits GM and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich
“The toughest part of our schedule is starting to come up here. We start to have some back-to-backs and play some teams that are in the top ends of the schedule, both in the east and the west, so it’s going to make things difficult for us.”
Before we go any further on stats, video, and standings, I want to redirect the story. Maybe this section of Fast Break should be retitled ‘Imposed Break’, because two years ago, that’s precisely what happened to all of us.
Preface: This is kind of an op-ed, with my views only, not a reflection of anyone else.
Just about two years ago to the day, on March 7, 2020, The Bandits had arrived in Halifax to prepare for a game against the Thunderbirds.
I was in the hotel’s fitness center with Bandits GM Steve Dietrich. The two of us started a conversation about the crazy situation in Europe where millions were forced to home confinement because of the highly infectious respiratory disease that spread from Wuhan, China.
Steve and I had a casual “can you believe what’s happing in China” conversation back in early January 2020. We thought this would only be confined to a part of the globe but expressed empathy for the people affected.
Like a boat adrift in maritime waters, with unknown destination, the same life-threatening warning came upon us a week later.
Thursday, March 12, 2020, around 12:10 pm, an email arrived from the NLL stating all games would be “paused,” beginning with the weekend schedule, which included the Bandits game in Toronto. I thought the pause in the schedule would last two weeks, and all would be back to normal. But, as we all know, that “Pause” lasted 21 months.
Little did we know.
“Only if…” will forever be the phrase left wavering.
Everybody’s life changed. There was no more regime or rhythm to everyday tasks. Jobs were lost, and job descriptions changed. Working from home is now standard operating procedure. Many of us are still looking for solid ground to get traction to get on with life.
I wrote a book the first year of the pandemic titled “Through All of This” which essentially was a daily journal of my feelings, challenges, and temporary job surroundings.
Thank God for sports, the exclusive escape from our everyday life challenges.
I am very thankful for ESPN+ (and TSN for our Canadian fans), where I can filter off to a sport when I want. And that includes submerging myself in NLL action in the same manner.
I am very thankful, as we all are, to return to doing some of the things we did before that March 12, 2020 date. That includes covering the Bandits.
Fortunate to be healthy and happy, I hope we all can follow suit and enjoy what we can.
Here is to the strength needed for the challenges ahead. And in remembrance of the six million people globally who have died from this terrible disease.
I’ll never forget March 12, 2020, when reality set in.
Back to Banditland, which brings solace
The team returns home this Saturday night with the first meeting of the season against the Philadelphia Wings. Themed ‘Wing Night’, there will be plenty of fun for the fans and a great game in front of them. Too, the Bandits are playing so well after 10 games.
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“Obviously not a lot of complaints. 9-1, we’ll take it. There are still a lot of places we need to improve. I think we lucked into some games; for example, Matt Vinc played really well.
“Other games I think the offense pulled us out, and there were games the defense pulled us out. I don’t think there have been many games that we played a complete game, but a couple of weeks ago against Albany, it was pretty close, other than the one quarter. But yeah, I don’t think we’ve put together a full sixty minutes for all three units,” Dietrich said
Pay no attention to the Wings’ 5-6 record and three-game losing streak. They are a team with undeniable talent and ready for a challenge to upset the Bandits. Coming off a bye week, the Wings will be refreshed and hungry. Despite a four-goal run in the fourth quarter on February 26, Philadelphia lost to Halifax 10-8.
As with any team coached by former Bandits player Paul Day, you can guarantee players like Kevin Crowley (16+39=55, top 10 of NLL scoring), Matt Rambo (16+28=44), Corey Small (15+28=43), and Brett Hickey (15+21=36) will come out firing shots left, right, and center.
Too, they have snipers in Ben McIntosh (21 goals) and Blaze Riorden (24 points) that can take advantage of time and space.
Defensively, the Wings are shored up with Kiel Matisz, who is excellent at transitioning the play (6+21=27), fourth in the league in scoring by a defenseman, and a host of other backliners, including John Ranagan, Ian Llord, and Anthony Joaquim.
Trevor Baptiste is a faceoff specialist (65 percent efficiency) and can transition the ball independently, too. Goaltender Zach Higgins is the workhorse with a .797 save percentage and 4-5 record.
The Bandits remain unbeaten at home with a 5-0 record and overall a three-game winning streak. Their plus-33 goal differential is tops in the league, and the club is shooting a solid 25 percent from the floor, averaging 13 goals per game. The club went three for three last Saturday on the power play, which improved to fifth-best in the league entering the week. Penalty killing is 60 percent.
Dhane Smith enters the week second in league scoring (23+47=70). Smith has 28 points in his last four games and averages seven points per game.
Josh Byrne is in the league’s top 10 in scoring (18+33=51). He also leads the league with four short-handed goals. Tehoka Nanticoke (19+11=30) enters the week fifth in rookie scoring but number one in goals. Tehoka is tied for the league lead in game-winning goals at three.
“If you ask anyone in our dressing room, we are right where we want to be. We will certainly improve in the second half of the season and continue to get better,” said Bandit’s defenseman Ian MacKay.
“But we like having the target on our back and being one of the top teams in the league. It gives us a drive and pushes each game, knowing that we will get the other team’s best game. It only makes us better both offensively and defensively.”
Let’s go to the Video Tape
A couple of highlights to rewatch:
With the Bandits down 5-4 in the early stages of the second quarter, watch goaltender Matt Vinc make a save and then flick the ball up, which is fielded by Nick Weiss. In full stride down the left-wing board through the center, watch the hidden ball trick to Dhane Smith, faking a drop, then going into the slot with a hard shot and score. I must have been watching the popcorn vendor to the right of my broadcast position because I was faked out. Weiss, too, paid the price by taking a hard hit at the end of his shot.
There is nothing like a revisit to the game-winning tally by Kyle Buchanan, 22 seconds into overtime. And, against his former club, too. Watch the strong faceoff by Max Adler, which created a Bandits possession. Then a hard pass to Chase Fraser by Buchanan, and the rebound scooped up Buchanan, and look where he puts it.
The Bandits vs. Wings game will be carried on ESPN+ and TSN with a 7:30 p.m. game start. Steve Bermel will join me in the booth while Dave Buchanan will be down between the benches.
Our radio coverage will be either 1520 The Bet or WGR Sports Radio 550. Check back on our social channels on game day for the official placement. Indeed, the pregame show will start at 6:30 p.m. and will feature a chat with Bandits head coach John Tavares and player Josh Byrne. Too, I will check in with Wings coach Paul Day and former Bandit Corey Small.