Sticks Down, Ball Placed
“Blow the whistle, let’s play some lacrosse,” says Jake Elliott, Vancouver’s play-by-play broadcaster and host of the popular “Lax Classified” podcast. That is his signature at the start of every game he calls.
And that’s precisely what the Bandits are going to do, starting Saturday, March 26, at 1 p.m., inside KeyBank Center, opening a home-and-home series against Halifax. 24 hours later and 1000 miles away, the two teams will meet again in Halifax.
The recently assembled series has been waiting for over two years, as the last time these two teams met was on March 9, 2020, a sour defeat for Buffalo.
“I think everybody knows it’s an opportunity to hold onto first place,” said Bandits head coach John Tavares. “But at the end of the day, you can only control what you can to try and win the games, and don’t worry about the other teams.”
The other teams will be Philadelphia and Colorado, positioned in the upcoming schedule as games three and four within the eight calendar days from March 26 through April 2.
“We will see how deep our lineup is and what kind of shape we are in,” Tavares said. “We finish those four games in Colorado, so we are a mile high above sea level, which could take a toll on us.”
Wait, Wait, Wait
Ok, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. More on the second leg of the schedule next week.
The Halifax series will be the biggest challenge of the season so far for the Bandits.
Both teams will be coming off bye weeks, so they should be rested and semi-healed of bumps and bruises. The enthusiasm is there; Buffalo has won four straight, and, counterpoint, Halifax lost two in a row, March 11 and 12. There shouldn’t be any problem getting stoked for this series; it’s a great matchup.
Buffalo is 10-1 on the season, their best start ever, and ranked number one in the league. Undefeated at home, 6-0, the Bandits are 4-1 on the road.
Halifax, 8-3, is third overall and possesses a decisive 6-1 record at home and 2-2 on the road. Buffalo is +45 in goals-for and goals-against, and Halifax is a +16.
The Bandits offense can be likened to Ocean’s Seven (I know it’s eleven, but work with me here). All are uniquely talented in passing, positioning, picking, sealing, and scoring. Even coach Tavares said it would be fun playing with this group.
Dhane Smith, tied for first overall in league scoring (25+57=82), is well on his way to crushing the league’s assist record and eclipsing his own scoring record of 137 points. The Great Dhane has five goals and 15 assists in his last two games, including his two goals, 10 assist performance on March 12.
Josh Byrne has 23 assists in his last five games and figured in nine of the 17 goals scored on March 12 against Philadelphia. Byrne is tied for 13th this week in league scoring.
Connor Fields is racking up the points (23+16=39) and shooting 23 percent from the floor.
Chris Cloutier has points in every game, including a four-goal performance on February 18 and three goals in his last two games.
Tehoka Nanticoke, coming off a five-goal performance on March 12, leads all rookies in goal scoring (24+12=36) and is fifth in freshman scoring. Tehoka has scored 13 goals in his last four games. Too, he is shooting 25 percent from the floor. Too, he leads the league overall in game winning goals with four.
Kyle Buchanan (9+24=33) is the arranger of plays and cycler of ball movement. He’s a solid 19 percent from the floor and 2+4 in his last two games.
Chase Fraser (15+17=32) is the F-150 of the group, paving the way with pick-and-rolls and ripping up defenses with his mighty force, especially in flight. Fraser is 3+3 in his last two, including a hat trick on March 12.
With four games played, rookie Brad McCulley (1+1=2) can step in and contribute, given the nod. Jordan Stouros, five games and 14 loose balls, can jump right in from the active roster.
Defensively, when you keep your goals against under 10, the chances of winning are pretty good. Again, +45 goals-for/goals-against is outstanding. And the crew of 10 that is dressed most games is led by the best in the box, the captain, Steve Priolo (2+9=11, 67 loose balls, and 15 caused turnovers).
“Steve is one of the best defenders in the league. He has size, toughness, great at loose balls, and he can put the ball in the net,” Tavares said.
“He is vocal, and he communicates very well, and we need that. We get used to having him back there and leading by example.”
The core of the Bandits roster are the likes of Ian MacKay (6+6=12, 68 loose balls, and 11 caused turnovers). He is currently on a four-game point streak, which includes swiping the ball and dashing 180 feet to score a transition goal. With those stats, MacKay is 12th in defenseman scoring.
Matt Spanger (3+5=8, 38 loose balls and 9 caused turnovers) added a couple of assists while taking care of the dirty work in the defensive zone.
Kevin Brownell (1+7=8, 45 loose balls and 11 caused turnovers) is consistent game in and game out, as is Nick Weiss (2+3=5, 36 LBs), who was the heavyweight player of the game on March 12. Bryce Sweeting (0+1=1, 38 LBs) takes care of opponents who wander into lanes they shouldn’t.
Ethan O’Connor (0+2=2, 43 LBs), Justin Robinson (1+5=6, 33 LBs), and Justin Martin remain a solid constant on defense. Newly acquired Max Adler (1+0=1) is becoming steady at faceoffs and meshing in quite well with the team.
“He has been a great addition for us. I know him pretty well, played with him in the summer, and won a championship with him. It’s been super awesome having him,” said Josh Byrne.
By reviewing the scoring on March 12, in the 17-5 victory over Philadelphia, 13 Bandit players contributed points.
And speaking of being used to having him back there, between the wickets, is goaltender Matt Vinc. Tops in save percentage (.821), saves (467), minutes (661), and wins (10) for 11 games played, the seven-time NLL Goaltender of the Year is having one of his best seasons!
Vince has made 50+ saves in his last three games, including 54 February 18 vs. Albany. Vinc is 31-7 in his third regular-season campaign with the Bandits. Oh, and four assists to his sheet.
Not to be forgotten, and the ones who can step in and play are the practice players: Marcus Minichiello, Devlin Shanahan, Sam La Roue, and Dalton Sulver.
But hang on here; Halifax is harboring some substantial numbers.
Goaltender Warren Hill has been having a solid season with a .804 save percentage and a 7-3 record. He, too, backed by a vital department of defense, is under a 10-goal average.
Defensively, the corp is led by Graeme Hossack, who represents his team as one of the best in the business. Playing in all 11 games, Hossack has 77 loose balls and 10 caused turnovers to his credit. Tyson Bell has meshed in nicely, coming from Calgary. And faceoff artist Jake Withers enters the week having won 70.5 percent of his draws.
The Thunderbirds have eight forwards capable of being difference makers. Cody Jamieson (10+26=36) is one of the most creative goal scorers in the league. Backed with Austin Shanks (21+18=39), Chris Boushy (18+13=31), and Clarke Petterson (15+30=45), the club recently added Shawn Evans, who will mix in quite nicely. Stephen Keogh, too, is a scoring threat.
That’s just a thumbnail sketch of how talented this Thunderbirds team is.
The Creators Game
Saturday afternoon will mark the celebration of Native American Heritage Day, recognizing the generations of tribes who have played North America’s oldest sport.
The Bandits will also present their annual Native American Scholarship.
TV/Radio, and all the ships at sea.
Saturday and Sunday’s games will be carried by ESPN+ and TSN. Broadcast time Saturday is 1 p.m. Sunday, coverage begins at 4 p.m., Eastern time. Steve Bermel will join me in the booth while Dave Buchanan will be between the benches.
Radio coverage of both games will be on 1520 The Bet. The pregame show Saturday will start at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. We will follow up with the coaches and players on both days.