The Buffalo Bandits had been chasing the Halifax Thunderbirds ever since their first head-to-head matchup, a 15-10 Halifax win in Buffalo on Dec. 28 that moved the Thunderbirds into first place in the North Division.
The Bandits finally ran down the Thunderbirds this past Saturday by winning the rematch at KeyBank Center, 13-9. They have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the Thunderbirds when the two teams meet for a rubber match Sunday at 2 p.m. at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.
Buffalo can solidify its grip at the top of the North Division standings with a second-consecutive win against Halifax. Sunday’s matchup is the final regular season meeting between Halifax and Buffalo and the last chance for either team to earn a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker as the race for first place in the division continues.
The Bandits stopped a two-game losing streak with their win over Halifax on Saturday. The Bandits were propelled by leading goal scorer Josh Byrne, who feasted on the Thunderbirds during a seven-point night, scoring four times and adding three assists. Byrne now has 28 goals, third most in the league, as well as 50 points, which now gives him the team lead.
Corey Small had five assists on the evening, while Chase Fraser added a hat trick. Meanwhile, goaltender Matt Vinc had a stellar night in goal by stopping 54 of Halifax’s 63 shots on goal.
The win propelled Buffalo to a 7-3 record on the season, which placed them in a three-way tie for the top spot in the division. It became a two-way tie atop the division when Halifax fell at New England on Sunday, 16-10. That dropped them to 7-4 and left Buffalo and Toronto atop the North Division with matching 7-3 records.
Halifax has lost four of its last five games after opening the season with a 6-0 record. They suddenly find themselves staring up at two teams in the North Division standings and in desperate need of a win on Sunday, or else they risk falling 1.5 games behind Buffalo.
Austin Shanks was the star performer for Halifax against Buffalo last Saturday. Shanks had a six-point night with four goals and two assists. Cody Jamieson had two goals and two assists, while Kyle Jackson led the Thunderbirds with three assists on the night. Starting goaltender Warren Hill allowed six goals on 15 shots to the Bandits before being pulled for Pete Dubenski just 25 seconds into the second quarter after Buffalo opened up a 6-0 lead. Dubenski stopped 28 of 35 shots the rest of the way in the loss for Halifax.
The Thunderbirds had the difficult assignment of flying out from Buffalo immediately after the game to Connecticut to get ready for a game the next day against the New England Black Wolves. Things did not go well for Halifax as they fell behind 4-1 in the first quarter and 8-3 in the second quarter on their way to a 16-10 loss. Dubenski played the entire game in goal for Halifax and stopped 40 of 55 shots.
Jamieson had a big night for Halifax against New England with four goals and two assists. He now leads Halifax in points with 51 on the season. Shanks had a goal and three assists while Clarke Petterson had two goals and two assists.
In addition to Jamieson, Shanks, and Petterson, the Bandits will have to key on Ryan Benesch on Sunday in Nova Scotia. Benesch has 47 points on the season and had a goal and an assist in last Saturday’s game. The Bandits will also have to solve star Thunderbird defender Jake Withers, who leads the league in loose balls (137), faceoff wins (220), and faceoff win percentage (.769).
As for the Bandits, their offense rebounded nicely against Halifax after struggling in consecutive games against Toronto and Philadelphia. More importantly, they were able to have a strong performance without Dhane Smith, who remains out of the lineup with a hand injury. A newcomer to the lineup made a big difference as Dan Lintner, who came over in a trade with Rochester last Thursday, had two goals and two assists to help Buffalo hold off Halifax. His two goals came in the fourth quarter to help the Bandits pull away late in the game.
While the Bandits pulled away late against Halifax, it was the 6-0 start that propelled Buffalo to victory. It was the first time since 2005 that the Bandits began a game with six consecutive goals. It’s the only time this season the Bandits have had a six-goal run in a game. The six goals to start the game also matched the six Buffalo scored all game against Philadelphia in their previous contest.
While the offense came to life early and often against Halifax, the defense held an opponent under 10 goals for the fifth time on the season. It was also the third time in the last four games the Buffalo defense accomplished this feat. Over the last four games, only Toronto (33) and Colorado (36) have given up fewer goals than Buffalo’s 37.
The Bandits’ defense now has two players with more than 80 loose balls in Ian MacKay (89) and Mitch de Snoo (84). With 16 caused turnovers, de Snoo is fourth overall in that category in the NLL.
While the Bandits and Thunderbirds battle it out on Sunday in Nova Scotia, the Toronto Rock will also be looking to maintain their hold on first place in the North Division. The Rock host Calgary at 3 p.m. Sunday up in Toronto, looking to improve to 8-3 on the season. The Bandits and Rock will meet next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena.
Sunday’s game against Halifax can be streamed on B/R Live and will be available to listen to on ESPN 1520 and WGWE 105.9 FM in Salamanca.