By Chris Ryndak – Bandits.com
TORONTO — The final shot went in, but it didn’t count.
On the Buffalo Bandits’ last possession with 7.5 seconds left to play in regulation of their East semi-final playoff game against the Toronto Rock on Saturday at Air Canada Centre in front of 9,472 fans, forward John Tavares collected the ball from teammate Luke Wiles.
Tavares moved right, stepped up and ripped a shot past Rock goaltender Nick Rose as the horn sounded. The officials signaled a good goal and Tavares’ teammates surrounded him in jubilation. The game was now tied and the teams were headed to sudden-death overtime.
Then the officials checked the tape. There would be no last-second heroics in this game.
Upon review, the officials ruled that Bandits forward Tracey Kelusky stepped into the crease, overturning the original call and ending the game. As soon as the referee signaled “No goal,” the Rock players erupted in celebration and the teams lined up at center to shake hands.
The Bandits were eliminated from the playoffs in a 7-6 loss to the Rock. The game marked the third time in a row that Toronto has eliminated Buffalo from the playoffs.
Toronto's seven goals are the fewest by a winning team in NLL playoff history and the fewest goals the Bnaidts have ever allowed in a playoff game.
The Rock will host Rochester next weekend in the East Final. The winner will play either Minnesota or Edmonton for the Champion's Cup.
“I was really surprised by it,” Tavares said of the final play. “We ran the ‘Flying V’ again and it worked. It’s unfortunate that Tracey got pushed in. It’s hard when you’re close to the crease and a guy pushes you in. No fault to Tracey. It’s a tough position to be in.”
For Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour, the play encapsulated much of the frustrations of a regular season in which the team finished 7-9 and endured a franchise-record six-game losing streak.
“We were in the crease. Stupid play at a stupid time,” Kilgour bluntly put it. “Explains our whole season.”
Kelusky, who opened the scoring for the Bandits, said he’s probably not going to get much sleep as a result of that final play.
“It’s the rule. I got ahead of the guy and he pushed me in the crease,” he said.
The Rock rallied from a 6-2 deficit at halftime, shutting the Bandits out in the second half. Toronto slowly chipped away at Buffalo’s lead and wore the defense out.
The game-winning goal came courtesy of Rock forward Brenden Thenhaus with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter. On a no-look, one-handed, under-hand shot, he beat goaltender Anthony Cosmo with one-second left on the shot clock.
“It was a tough one, eh?” said Bandits captain Chris White. “Usually in those tight games, those are the type of goals that go in and unfortunately it went against us at that time. I guess you can put it on us as a defense. We need to come up with that loose ball. ”
Thenhaus started the season on the Bandits practice squad and Toronto signed him to their active roster after their second game of the season. The Bandits chose not to match the offer and Thenhaus joined the Rock.
Towards the end of the fourth quarter Saturday night, the Bandits defense was running on fumes.
“That first quarter, we forced a lot of turnovers,” Cosmo said. “It was just that second half, we kind of buried our defense and we left them out there a little bit too long. Once you do that, your feet are behind, and you can’t give these guys that much space. You give them space and they’re going to bury the ball against you.”
Cosmo stopped 48 of 55 shots in the losing effort.
“It’s real tough. It’s the end of our season. I mean, we just couldn’t get any goals in the second half,” Kilgour said. “You do something like that, what do you expect is going to happen? We played too much defense, got too tired and they wore us down. Cosmo, he played unbelievable and we just couldn’t bail him out.”
Buffalo played a man-short for the entire second half as well. Defenseman Ian Llord was run into the boards from behind with 5.6 seconds left in the first quarter. He headed to the locker room with a separated shoulder and did not return.
No penalty was called on the play. The Bandits head coach and his players voiced their frustrations about the officiating after the game.
“I thought there were some calls that should’ve been made, absolutely obvious calls that should’ve been made,” Kilgour said.
On the hit Llord suffered, Kilgour believed that the injury could have been much worse than a separated shoulder.
“That’s a dangerous play, obviously,” Kilgour said. “A separated shoulder could have been a broken neck. Unbelievable.”
The Bandits opened the first quarter with a strong effort. The goals were going in early and the defense kept Toronto’s best shooters to the outside. Cosmo could see the plays develop and, with a 4-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, it looked like the Bandits were in complete control.
Kelusky, defenseman Scott Self, forward Luke Wiles and transition player Mark Steenhuis scored for Buffalo.
Then the game started to turn and the Rock gained more confidence on each of their possessions. On the other end of the floor, Rose finished with 36 saves on 42 shots to stymie the Bandits’ attack.
"Their goalie played well," Cosmo said. "Rosie had a great second half and gave them the opportunity to win. It’s frustrating, but our team battled."
Tavares scored twice in the second quarter, the last goal with 4:03 to play in the half. That goal made it 6-2 and it would be the last goal the Bandits would score for the rest of the game. The Rock held Buffalo scoreless for the final 34:03.
Garrett Billings led Toronto in scoring with a goal and four assists. Blaine Manning had four assists and Kasey Beirnes scored on three straight shots in the fourth quarter to tie the game, 6-6. The tying goal came with 9:43 to go in regulation.
Tavares, at 43 years of age, said he hasn’t put any thought into what he’s going to do next season. He’s flirted with the possibility of retirement from the NLL in the past, but he’s not yet thinking that far into the future.
“My thoughts right now are not on next year,” Tavares said. “My thoughts are pretty much thinking about whether I’m going to play summer lacrosse or not. Right now, I’m not sure.”