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Bandits respond to challenge, sweep weekend

Photo by Don Nieman

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

After halting their six-game losing skid last night with a road win over Toronto, the Buffalo Bandits punctuated their weekend with a 13-10 victory over the visiting Minnesota Swarm.

Legendary forward John Tavares registered his 1,600th point in a four goal, three assist performance, and goalie Mikey Thompson turned aside 38 of the 48 shots. Buffalo improves to 4-6 on the season, while Minnesota drops to 5-4.

“It’s really been a rebirth this weekend,” said Buffalo defender Scott Self, who potted two goals. “We hadn’t played well for six games—especially at home—and [head coach] Darris [Kilgour] made it real clear on Tuesday [at practice] that we all needed to be better, and it started last night and carried over into tonight.”

In the Bandits’ ejection-marred 19-11 loss to the Swarm in late January, Minnesota’s speed flustered Buffalo, as the wheels of All-Stars Jordan MacIntosh and Andrew Suitor kept the Bandits on their heels. Saturday night, Kilgour’s team was prepared for the Swarm’s speed and actually out-played Minnesota in the transition game. Clearly frustrated at the game’s conclusion, Suitor was ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten easy goals like that [in transition],” Kilgour said, “and to outrun a team that expected to outrun us, it’s pretty special. It shows that we were really smart tonight, and we fast-broke them better than they did to us. That’s a big accomplishment for an old, slow team.”

Minnesota had narrowed a six goal halftime deficit to two after shutting the Bandits out in the third quarter, but three plays in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter shifted the momentum in Buffalo’s favor. In arguably the play of the game, Mark Steenhuis—asked to play out the back door because of Jay Thorimbert’s second-half injury—sprinted out of his own zone and alertly found Kevin Buchanan dashing off the Bandit bench for an easy finish to stop the Swarm run.

Less than two minutes later, Swarm attacker Kevin Ross shielded Priolo in front of Thompson and whipped a low shot past the Bandits’ goalie, but the goal was waived off for a crease violation. Adamant that he had scored legally, Ross motioned for Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan to throw the challenge flag—after viewing the replay, though, Ross’ arm had hit the turf inside the crease before the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line. No goal.

“The [scoreboard] wasn’t showing a lot of replays tonight, so that’s a little different than most rinks. We’ll look into that a bit because I don’t understand that,” Sullivan said when asked about the decision to challenge after the game.

Leading 10-7 after Minnesota’s lost challenge, Tavares made history after a pretty outlet pass from Billy Dee Smith. After Darryl Gibson sprinted to the bench, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer exploded—as fast as a 43-year-old can explode—out the front door to corral the pass and whistle a shot over Kirk’s right shoulder. The ensuing media timeout was dedicated to honoring Tavares’ 1,600th point, yet another milestone in his unparalleled career. Buffalo cruised through the final 10 minutes, and rookie Jeremy Thompson’s empty net goal—his first as a Bandit—off his own face-off win capped the evening.

“1,600 points—it’s just that many games I’ve played,” Tavares said humbly. “I joked with the guys on the bench: ‘I guess I’ve gotta get to 1,700 now.’ 1,600 is a good number, but 1,601? Then I have to go 1,700. I’m not saying [I will play until then],” he said with a smile.

Buffalo’s offense clicked in the first half, as seven players in the special edition green-and-black jerseys beat Swarm goalie Evan Kirk en route to a 9-3 advantage at the break. Two transition goals in particular stuck out for Buffalo: Steve Priolo, not known for his pace, led an odd-man rush out of his own zone before finding a streaking Scott Self to his right for a far post finish, and a missile from Minnesota’s Callum Crawford clanged off the post so hard that it spurred a breakaway goal for Jimmy Purves, who’d just left the penalty box.

“We did a really good job of maintaining our composure when we were going through the penalties in the first half and then the second half,” Kilgour added. The Bandits killed off three Swarm power plays in the first half, critical to avoiding the first quarter deficits that have plagued Buffalo recently.

While Tavares’ record-setting exploits and Thompson’s steadiness were the main individual story-lines, a sense of urgency—the Bandits were fighting for their jobs, in many cases—resilience helped Buffalo push through the third quarter drought and thwart the Minnesota comeback. 

“We were right on the precipice of breaking this whole thing up,” Kilgour admitted after the game. “We have a pretty big salary as a team, and if guys aren’t going to live up to that, then if we’re going to lose, we may as well lose with cheap players. At least we’d have an excuse then.”

“We talked about this on Tuesday—this was a tryout weekend,” the head coach continued. “The guys that wanted to make this team would stay on this team, and the guys that didn’t—well, we’d make some changes.”

“Our Achilles’ heel has been our confidence the last few weeks; we’d get down a few, hang our heads and maybe give up a little bit. Darris gave a great speech before the game—‘Don’t quit and make the other team quit,’” Self said.

At 4-6, the Bandits are tied for third in the East with the Toronto Rock, but only trail first-place Philadelphia by two games. Overall, Buffalo is tied for sixth in a league where eight of the nine teams qualify for the playoffs.

“We have some momentum behind us now, and we’re a game back of Rochester (for second in the East). We could get hot in the second half and make a push—even for the division still,” Scott Self concluded.

Quick hitter: Unprompted, Darris Kilgour had this to say about Mark Steenhuis following the game: “I can’t speak enough as to the change in his game that he’s made this year—the sacrifices he’s made. When Jay Thorimbert went down, we took Mark off the front door and out the back door, and he transitioned up. The first thing he did was create a two-on-one that got the Buchanan goal that turned the game back in our favor. Mark Steenhuis is being an unbelievable player; I know everyone is talking about how his numbers are down, but we’re not asking him for numbers this year, we’re asking him to fill every hole that’s available because he can do that as a player. He’s done a great job with that, and I can’t speak enough about how Mark Steenhuis has helped this team this year.”

TAGGED: andrew suitor, buffalo bandits, darris kilgour, joe sullivan, john tavares, mike thompson, minnesota swarm, nll, scott self

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