By Chris Ryndak - Bandits.com
With one weekend’s worth of games, the Buffalo Bandits have taken themselves from losers of six straight games and a candidate to miss the playoffs to challengers for the division title.
The Bandits defeated the Toronto Rock in dominant fashion on Friday and came back home on St. Patrick’s Day to beat the Minnesota Swarm, 13-10, in front of 16,003 fans at First Niagara Center.
John Tavares highlighted Saturday’s game by reaching the 1,600-career point milestone on what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
“I kind of joked on the bench, ‘Guess I have to play to 1,700 now,’” Tavares said with a smile after the game. Unless I quit today, 1,600 is a good number; 1,601 then I gotta go 1,700. Not saying that I am. It was just a thought in my mind.”
The goal, which was Tavares’ third of the game, came on a rush where defenseman Billy Dee Smith found Tavares sprinting off the bench on a change with Darryl Gibson. Full-steam ahead, Tavares went to the net, caught Smith’s pass and buried the ball past Swarm goaltender Evan Kirk. Tavares said he thanked both Smith for the pass and Gibson for making the substitution.
“We were flat there for the second half so it was important to get some energy out there,” Tavares said. “So somewhere, somehow, I found a little spark to get the opening there.”
Tavares is the first player in NLL history to hit 1,600 career points as he’s the league’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points. The Bandits coaching staff has made an effort this year to get the 43-year-old forward some help offensively so that he can still be productive despite having lost a step or two in recent years.
“Every time he scores a point it’s a milestone. We all understand who he is and what he is. We also understand that we have to help him, that he’s not as young as he was. He’s not the player he was but he’s still a great scorer,” Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour said. “If we can give him the opportunities we gave him tonight, he’s going to put the ball in the net and that’s what we want to do as a team is help him.”
Tavares finished with three goals and an assist. Transition player Mark Steenhuis also had four points for the Bandits (1+3) and Luke Wiles continued his scoring streak with two goals and an assist. Tavares and Wiles are the only Bandits who have scored a goal in every game this season.
Defenseman Scott Self scored twice and Mat Giles, Kevin Buchanan, Brandon Francis, Jimmy Purves and Jeremy Thompson also scored for Buffalo on Saturday. Thompson’s goal, the 13th for the Bandits, was his first-career NLL goal.
The Bandits (4-6) put a hurting on the Swarm defense with seven goals in the second quarter. Wiles got things started 30 seconds into the quarter to give Buffalo its first lead of the night and seven seconds later, Steenhuis joined the party with a goal off the face off.
The third quarter belonged to the Swarm (5-4). Minnesota scored four unanswered goals in the quarter but still trailed 9-7 thanks to the Bandits' run of goals earlier. The Bandits came back out in the fourth quarter with Buchanan’s goal 1:31 into the final frame and it was followed up about a minute-and-a-half later with Tavares’ game winner to make it 11-7. The Swarm made a late surge, getting within two goals with 3:06 to play.
Bandits goaltender Mike Thompson helped shut the door on any late rally with some big saves in the fourth quarter. Thompson stopped 38 of 48 shots in the winning effort.
"I think we had a lead and we wanted to sit on it, which is always dangerous,” Kilgour said. “…We went into a shell. We tried to control the game a little too much. You still have to be aggressive in terms of how you play and we got non-aggressive and they got aggressive. I thought we did a good job in the fourth quarter of turning that aggressiveness around and we got a couple goals off the bench.”
A loss on either night would have put the Bandits in a tough spot. Eight of the nine teams in the league make the playoffs and the team that doesn’t is rewarded with the first-overall pick in the draft. The team likely would have sold some assets if this weekend’s slate of games didn’t go their way.
“We were right on the precipice of breaking this whole thing up,” Kilgour said. “We have a pretty big salary as a team and if guys aren’t going to live up to that, if we’re going to lose, we might as well lose with cheap players, anyways. At least we have an excuse then.”
“But we talked about it on Tuesday. This was a tryout weekend. The guys that wanted to make this team will stay on this team and the guys who didn’t, we would’ve made some changes.”
Kilgour also said that players like Ian Llord, Tom Montour and Roger Vyse, who have been healthy scratches will get another shot in the lineup soon. In one player’s case, it may be out of necessity as Jay Thorimbert was injured in the third quarter on Saturday and may miss some time.
For captain Chris White, getting back on the winning side of things is welcome and he recognizes that his team still isn’t out of it despite the tough stretch they just went through.
“It’s one of the things we’ve actually been talking about is that you lose six in a row and you’re still in it in the loss column. There’s not too many times you can look at that and say you’re still going to be in it,” White said. “We just have to put our nose down to the grindstone and work out way out.
“We got ourselves into this mess and it’s hard work and dedication and some pride in this dressing room. I think we get out of it and look forward to next weekend because if we don’t come with the effort next weekend, this weekend is kind of lost.”
The Bandits travel to Calgary next weekend for a 9 p.m. EST face off against the Roughnecks on Saturday.