With two of their key offensive weapons unable to play on Saturday night, the Buffalo Bandits’ offense struggled to find the back of the net for the second game in a row.
The Bandits were held to under 10 goals for the second straight contest and lost their second consecutive game 7-6 to the Philadelphia Wings at KeyBank Center on Saturday.
The Bandits were without Dhane Smith and Chase Fraser in this contest, both of whom were out with injuries. That, along with a tough, close-checking Philadelphia defense, helped limit the Buffalo offense, even with a fourth-quarter rally that nearly saw the Bandits come back and tie the game.
“If you hold a team to seven, you have to find a way to score more than seven,” Bandits head coach John Tavares said. “It definitely was the game we were anticipating, but we were two goals short.”
Tavares stated the obvious that Buffalo missed the presence of Smith and Fraser in the lineup, but also concluded that the team still has to find ways to make it work on the offensive end even with those guys out.
“They’re definitely a big part of our offense, but it gave us an opportunity for other guys to shine and show us what they have,” Tavares said. “I thought it was a great lacrosse game. The guys never gave up and fought to the end.”
Buffalo’s Garrett Billings was the leading scorer for both teams with four points (1+3), while Corey Small had the lone hat trick for either team in this game, but Zach Higgins’ 44 saves were the difference for Philadelphia in this game.
Higgins, the former Bandit goaltender who was traded to Philadelphia from Buffalo in the offseason, was the first star of the game as he stopped 13 shots in the fourth quarter to preserve the win for the Wings.
Brett Hickey (2+1) and Kevin Crowley (1+2) each had three points to lead the Philadelphia offense on the evening.
Matt Vinc stopped 45 of 52 shots on goal for the Bandits in a losing effort. Philadelphia outshot Buffalo 52-51 for the game.
Philadelphia got on the board first as a turnover led to a breakout the other way for Liam Patten, who ripped a shot past Vinc 2:14 in. Buffalo answered 30 seconds later as Kevin Brownell fed Billings cutting toward the crease from the left side for a goal in tight on Higgins. It took Philadelphia just 30 seconds to respond with a goal of their own as Matt Rambo beat Vinc.
In the final seconds of the quarter, Philadelphia pulled Higgins for an extra attacker. Buffalo, however, came up with a turnover as Matt Spanger ran the other way with the ball and an empty net. But his shot rang off the post as time expired to end a low-scoring quarter.
Nearly four minutes into the second quarter, the Bandits finally broke a long goal-scoring drought with a beautiful goal by JP Kealey as he ripped a behind-the-back shot that fooled Higgins and eluded him to tie the game at 3:53.
In transition, Philadelphia regained the lead as Hickey beat Vinc to his stick side at 5:37. Rambo’s second of the night then gave the Wings a two-goal lead as his quick turnaround shot beat Vinc short side at 8:25.
With Bryce Sweeting in the box for cross checking, it appeared that the Bandits had drawn to within one as Billings ripped a shorthanded goal past Higgins with a low shot at 10:52. The goal was reviewed, however, and taken off the board as officials determined that the shot clock had expired before the ball made its way into the net.
Tavares was upset about the call and pointed out that the shot clock is supposed to stop if the ball hits the goaltender first before going in the net, which is what he thought had happened on Billings’ shot.
“I just wanted to know if [the official] could see that there was enough evidence that the shot clock expired before the ball hit the goalie,” Tavares said. “I read the rules at halftime. It said if the ball hits the goalie, the shot clock’s dead. That’s my interpretation.”
Tavares was told by crew chief Mark Gardonio that there was enough evidence of the shot clock expiring before the ball hit Higgins to overturn the original call of a goal.
“They need to be 100 percent sure that there’s enough evidence to overturn the goal,” Tavares said. “He said there was, so I believe him. But I did say I was going to go watch [the replay] a few times.”
The first half came to a close with the Bandits finding the back of the net just three times in the previous 60 minutes of lacrosse. Bandits’ captain Steve Priolo, back in the lineup after missing the previous two games with an injury sustained when he got hit in the eye with a shot that went through his mask against Rochester on January 31, said that the Bandits weren’t slowed by anything particular the Wings did, but just didn’t generate enough chances themselves.
“They didn’t do anything to frustrate us,” Priolo said. “I just think maybe the offense didn’t get on the floor enough.”
Philadelphia opened the scoring to begin the second half as Crowley scored his first of the night on the power play at 5:14. Meanwhile, the Bandits’ offense continued to struggle throughout the third quarter.
The offensive power outage was partly due to a lack of transition opportunities for Buffalo and a Wings defense that packed everyone in and gave the Bandits little room to work with in the offensive zone.
“I would say we were on the perimeter quite a bit,” Tavares said. “We were not penetrating their defense very much. It’s definitely something that’s concerning because it’s tough to win lacrosse games when you don’t penetrate. We have to try and find ways to get a little tighter to the goalie.”
With 3:30 to go in the quarter, Mitch de Snoo was called for cross checking after letting a pass go in the offensive end. The Wings cashed in with 2:00 left in the quarter as Blaze Riorden beat Vinc for a power play goal.
Finally, the Bandits got on the board in the second half as Corey Small ripped a shot past Higgins with 50.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Bandits had a chance to cut the lead to two when they went on the power play right before the end of the third quarter, but Philadelphia managed to kill it off. Then, Hickey notched his second goal of the night to give the Wings a 7-3 lead with 12:25 left to play.
Buffalo did try to crawl back shortly thereafter as Small led the way. He took a pass from Byrne in front for his second goal of the night with 11:45 left. He then completed the hat trick 58 seconds later with a rocket shot from the right to beat Higgins with 10:47 to play.
Small thought the Bandits were able to fight though their offensive frustrations and responded well when the going got tough in the fourth quarter.
“In any game, there’s going to be ups and downs and things aren’t going to always go your way,” Small said. “You’ve got to stay even keeled and I thought we did a pretty good job of that. We struggled early. This obviously isn’t the unit we use every week. It took us a while to get our feet under us, but in the second half we looked better.”
Down two with under two minutes to play, the Bandits pulled Vinc for the extra attacker with 1:45 to go. Josh Byrne finally found the back of the net for his first goal of the night and 24th of the season with 1:36 to play.
The Bandits had a couple possessions in the final minute but could not find the back of the net. The Wings took possession with 6.9 seconds to and were able to get the ball cleared out of their zone and time ran out.
The Bandits’ three-goal fourth quarter snapped a streak of five consecutive quarters where the Bandits scored no more than one goal in each. Buffalo was held to just one goal in the second half of its 13-9 loss at Toronto last Sunday.
The Bandits will now have some time to regroup as they don’t play again until February 29. With a week off the Bandits will have a chance to get their key guys back healthy and figure out how to rekindle the fire for an offense that came into the game with the most goals scored in the league.
A key contest awaits the Bandits when they return as they host first place Halifax on Feb. 29. The Thunderbirds fell to 6-2 with a loss to Saskatchewan on Saturday night, but they remain in first place in the North Division. Halifax hosts 6-2 Toronto on Friday for a huge matchup in the North Division standings before making the trip to Buffalo the following week.
Halifax came into Buffalo and knocked off the Bandits, 15-10, in the first meeting between these two teams back in December.
Buffalo will hope the rest does them well and allows players like Smith and Fraser to get healthy and return to the lineup for their biggest contest of the season so far.
“Having those two guys back, if they’re back, will help a lot, obviously,” Tavares said. “Obviously we missed them today, but I thought our team did a good job of keeping that game close. Our defense gave us a chance to win; [Vinc] gave us a chance to win. If we had a couple more minutes, maybe we tie that game up.”
Faceoff for the Feb. 29 home game against the Thunderbirds is at 7 p.m. Tickets for that game are on sale now.