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Trouble brews in Banditland after fourth straight loss

Photo from Dave Marino from the Washington Stealth game

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Once 2-0 with NLL Championship aspirations, the Buffalo Bandits have unexpectedly dropped four straight games, the most recent a 14-13 defeat against Philadelphia Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. Even though eight of the NLL’s nine teams make the post-season, Buffalo (2-4) stands a half-game out of last place.

According to head coach Darris Kilgour’s interview with NLL.com, “dumb plays” by the Bandits in the final two minutes of Sunday’s road loss proved costly.

“Right now we’re not a real smart team, and when you’re not a smart team, teams can take advantage of you, and that’s exactly what happened,” Kilgour explained with exasperation.

Two Drew Westervelt goals in the final 3:40 of the fourth quarter were the difference for Philadelphia, as the brace quelled a three-goal Bandit rally to briefly knot the game at 12. Kilgour pointed to a slow defensive change at the bench that permitted Westervelt to trot in alone on Buffalo’s back-up goaltender Angus Goodleaf, lunge across the crease and stuff the ball inside the right post. Kilgour challenged the play in hope of finding a crease violation, but the goal stood.

Maestro Dan Dawson (one goal, nine assists) set up Westervelt’s second consecutive goal, his third of the night, with a nifty fake-shot and flick to his left—Westervelt, with plenty of space to step into his shot, buried his chance inside the right post. 

The Bandits benefited from a little luck shortly after, as a too-many-men violation on the Wings with under two minutes remaining meant a penalty shot for the Bandits, and John Tavares made no mistake faking high to the right before burying his shot left past Philly goalie Brandon Miller’s mid-section. Buffalo couldn’t muster another scoring chance, however, and Philly held onto the 14-13 win.

NLL All-Star Game starting goalie Mike Thompson was pulled from the Bandits’ cage with 5:54 left in the third quarter after conceding his 11th goal in 36 shots. Head coach Kilgour shifted the blame away from Thompson, even though a number of the goals appeared soft.

“We’re not playing well in front of [Thompson],” Kilgour said. “We’re hanging him out to dry—and it looks bad on Mikey but it’s not his fault. Every once in awhile you have to do something to shake things up, and that’s all we had at that moment.”

Although the match-up seemed promising for the Bandits’ two physical defensemen, Billy Dee Smith and Chris White, against the lanky trio of Westervelt, Dawson and Kevin Crowley, all of whom stand over 6’4, the top pair of Buffalo defenders managed only two loose balls and no forced turnovers. Yikes. At times, Crowley’s craftiness in the attacking end served as a clinic for Buffalo defenders, who were left lunging in the opposite direction or over-committing hard. After adding four goals Sunday to break out of a two-game slump, Crowley’s 14 on the season are good for second in NLL rookie scoring. 

Five Bandits up:

1) Tom Montour, transition: Even though he has yet to dress for a win in 2012—the Bandits are 0-4 in games that Montour’s been active—it’s hard to place much of the blame on Tommy, as the transition player has been a buzzard, flying around the floor for loose balls (a team-high 13 Sunday) and infusing energy into an incredibly lethargic team.

2) Angus Goodleaf, goalie: Despite being saddled with the loss Sunday, Goodleaf badly outplayed starter Mike Thompson. Playing with a chip on his shoulder after the battering he took against Minnesota, Goodleaf stopped 15 of the 18 Philadelphia shots he faced, giving Buffalo’s offense an opportunity to narrow the deficit. Goodleaf looked much quicker across his crease than Thompson and even left his net at one point to thwart a breakaway chance with an unexpected stick check near the restraining line.

3) Mat Giles, forward: John Tavares aside, Giles was Buffalo’s most effective offensive player in the loss, contributing three goals and two assists. His 30% shooting percentage glowed on a day when Luke Wiles and Kevin Buchanan combined for two goals on 29 shots (23 on target). Strangely, Giles was at his best barreling down on the Philly D from the perimeter rather than trying to find space down low.

4) Brandon Francis, forward: The NLL’s new rules to emphasize transition play and speed don’t favor an oft-overweight, agonizingly slow forward, but Francis wasn’t an obvious minus against Philly. Dressing for only his third game of the season, Francis won 10 of 16 face-offs—and many of them late as Buffalo clawed back into the game—and even deposited a goal of his own perched on the doorstep of Miller’s net.

5) Twitter: The Wings held a promotion Sunday that replaced each player’s last name with his Twitter handle on the back of Philadelphia’s uniforms. Although I was skeptical initially, it was relatively cool and forward-thinking.

Five Bandits down:

1) Mike Thompson, goalie: He sure doesn’t look like an All-Star goalie, regardless of where Kilgour directs blame. The classic hot-or-cold net-minder, Thompson goes on incredible hot streaks before his play declines sharply. Is his starting job safe? Probably, considering he’s rarely in Kilgour’s doghouse, but Bandit fans can hope for a time-share. Over the four game skid, Thompson has allowed 41 goals on 148 shots (72% save percentage), or 13.88 goals against average. 

2) Kevin Buchanan, forward: The Bandits’ prized acquisition is simply having no luck. He pinged the crossbar so hard in the first half that it ignited a Philadelphia breakaway at the opposite end of the floor. Buchanan finally used his athleticism to beat his defender one-on-one instead of blasting a wild shot from the outside, but instead of shooting on net, he dished to a surprised teammate at the opposite post—chance squandered. In the three games he’s played during the losing streak, Buchanan’s failed to hit the target on 15 of 34 shots. That’s a horrible number, and it doesn’t help that #33 is scoreless since the season opener.

3) Mark Steenhuis, transition: Say what you want about a nagging groin issue, but Steenhuis cannot be named among the league’s top transition players anymore. When he’s in an offensive set, he stagnates the offense by holding the ball—unless you’re Dan Dawson, you probably shouldn’t do that—and he’s not the dynamic finisher of 2009. In consecutive weeks, Washington’s Paul Rabil and Philadelphia’s Max Seibald and Brodie Merrill have demonstrated how valuable a dominant transition player can be. Buffalo doesn’t have one.

4) Darris Kilgour, head coach: During losing streaks, players turn to their head coach for answers, and Kilgour—as evidenced by the press conference link above—has none. He was slow to pull Thompson from the cage, arguably weakened the talent of his roster by shipping away Jeff Cornwall this week and hasn’t shown too much imagination in his offensive sets—which often look haphazard. As commentator John Gurtler said throughout the telecast on NLL.com, Buffalo had moments of composure and sound execution on offense—but they were too few and too far between. This aging team needs a shake-up.

5) Luke Wiles, forward: It’s hard to harp on Wiles here because he’s been the team’s best offensive player in the five games prior. Sunday, however, the marquee acquisition from Washington couldn’t find his scoring touch, as he repeatedly tried to beat Brandon Miller low, and the Philly keeper was having none of it. In his post-game interview, Wiles didn’t deflect any of the blame—he put his poor performance on his shoulders, a good sign for a team leader. Wiles dropped the ominous line: “We’re not trusting in one another right now, and not everybody’s on the same page.”

(Buffalo forward Tracey Kelusky would ordinarily be a “down” since he’s had a rough tenure in Western New York, but he’s been miscast as an away-from-the-ball-player, which doesn’t seem to be his forte. You can’t fault him for scrapping near the opponent’s cage, even if he’s been wayward with his shot all year.)

Philadelphia improves to 3-2 overall despite allowing 14 more goals than it’s scored.

TAGGED: buffalo bandits, dan dawson, john tavares, kevin buchanan, lacrosse, luke wiles, mike thompson, nll, philadelphia wings

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