By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
After a rare losing season for the Buffalo Bandits, head coach Troy Cordingley had a simple mantra for the team heading into a new year.
“It’s the old-fashioned way,” he said during the pregame shootaround. “We’re earning things.”
The Bandits did just that. With a balanced scoring attack and a big debut from goaltender Alex Buque, Buffalo earned a 13-9 home win over the Toronto Rock in the 2017-18 NLL season opener before a crowd of 11,516 at KeyBank Center on Friday night.
“It was what we practiced,” Buque said. “Hard work. Work ethic. Being humble. We got out there and did our jobs. That’s what the coach wanted. And that’s what we did.”
In a performance that Cordingley described as ‘stellar’, Buque starred in his first start. As defenders cleared lanes for him to see the ball, saves came a bit easier. And when he did find himself out of position, he recovered with quick lateral movements, inherently difficult for a bigger goaltender.
“It surprises me, I’m like ‘how do you do that?’,” said Bandits forward Dhane Smith, who contributed a game-high seven points with six assists. “The saves he makes are like ‘how do you even get across from there?’ It’s pretty to watch.”
As Buque and the defense closed the door on their end, things opened up for the Bandits offense to spread the ball around. And when the dust settled, 10 different players had lit the lamp.
“We have so many threats,” Smith said. “It’s great for an offense to not know who’s going to shoot. We have so many guys who can put the ball in the net. It’s fun to watch when we’re swinging the ball and we all buy-in.”
The Bandits raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first 12 minutes. Securing an early cushion and allowing Buque to settle in was one of the coaching staff’s main objectives going in.
“We actually talked about that prior to the game,” Cordingley said. “And when we broke down, Alex was pretty good. He was a wall out there.”
Bandits forward Josh Byrne, the top pick from the 2017 NLL Draft, scored his first career goal early in the third quarter to open the second-half scoring and break a 5-5 halftime tie.
After Toronto responded to even the score, fellow rookie Chase Fraser scored to regain the lead, which Buffalo held the rest of the way.
“Chase and I getting our first goals, that’s a big kind of monkey off the back,” said Byrne, who finished with five points.
Veterans Callum Crawford, Mitch Jones and Nick Weiss scored twice while Dhane Smith, Mark Steenhuis and Pat Saunders each contributed a goal for the Bandits.
“The rest of the guys have been in the league for so long and they’re unreal goalscorers,” Byrne said. When you put all of us together, and everybody’s moving the ball, it’s great to watch.”
Byrne’s lacrosse IQ and maturity is something that has caught the eye of the coaching staff.
“He’s a very intelligent player for a young guy...that only has one game under his belt in this league,” Cordingley said. “I’ve seen him do a couple things during training camp and the exhibition games that I just shook my head, like ‘wow, that’s pretty veteran.”
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Even a retired veteran had an impact. Buffalo went 3-for-5 with the man advantage, a proficiency credited to preparations made by assistant coach John Tavares, who retired in 2015 as the league’s all-time leading scorer.
“I thought the powerplay was very good,” Cordingley said. “JT, he had some beauty plays drew up. And they capitalized.”
The Bandits were also forced to play a man-down in a sense for much of the game. Craig England was injured in the first half and did not return. But Cordingley noted that the forward was held out from returning for precautionary reasons and that he expects him to be okay.
“We definitely missed Craig, because he’s a great roleplayer for us and battles in there like nobody else,” Byrne said. “All he really wanted was to get back in there.”
While some lacrosse experts may have pegged Buffalo as underdogs going into the game, the Bandits were able to block out the noise.
“We try not to listen to [it],” Smith said. “We were placed last...Toronto was placed one. It doesn’t matter. It’s whoever comes to play. The East is so close, the West is so close. I feel like we outworked them tonight and we’ll see when we play them again.”
Back in the swing of things, the team now prepares to hit the road for two more East Division games to finish out the first month of action.
Buffalo will make the short trip across the I-90 to visit the Rochester Knighthawks on Saturday, Dec. 23, then head up the QEW for the rematch with Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 30, before returning to Banditland to host the Calgary Roughnecks on Saturday, Jan. 6.