Completing one of the biggest comebacks in team history, the Buffalo Bandits (3-3) stunned the Saskatchewan Rush (4-1) and their home crowd of 14,693 at SaskTel Centre with a 16-15 overtime win on Friday night.
“Obviously, that’s a character win,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “At the end of the first quarter, we talked about character and grit. I don’t think we brought our game early. We were sitting back on our heels, watching them take the game to us.”
The Rush came out flying, scoring on four of its first six shots to chase Bandits starting goalie Alex Buque, and eventually led 6-0 after 15 minutes of play. But Buffalo was able to settle in and start chipping away at the Saskatchewan lead.
“From the second quarter on, I thought we matched their intensity and there were times when we were the better team,” Cordingley said. “The guys played well, they deserved it. There was no quit.”
Down 9-3 at halftime, the Bandits narrowed the margin to 12-8 after three quarters. Buffalo appeared to tie the game at 12-12 five minutes into the fourth quarter but the video review was inconclusive.
After the Rush extended the lead to 13-11, Dhane Smith scored twice in 24 seconds to tie the game with just over six minutes remaining.
Saskatchewan answered with two goals to go up 15-13 with 2:07 remaining but Buffalo again fought back. Craig England converted on the power play a minute later to get the Bandits in striking distance. With the goalie pulled, rookie Josh Byrne scored with 18 seconds on the clock forced overtime with an extra-attacker goal for the second-straight week.
On the Bandits’ second possession of the extra session, Pat Saunders grabbed a loose ball in front of the crease and found the net 1:46 into overtime as Buffalo earned its first road win of the season.
“Patty came to the bench after a couple times that he was all alone and didn’t put the ball in,” Cordingley said. “We just said to him ‘keep shooting, keep shooting. It’s going to drop.’”
A healthy scratch the previous two games, Saunders made the most of his opportunity. As did Bandits backup netminder Zach Higgins, who finished with 34 saves on 45 shots, including a huge stop at the buzzer at the end of regulation before thwarting several Rush chances in OT.
“Zach did a phenomenal job coming off the bench,” Cordingley said. “That’s what you want your [backup] to do when your starter has a tough one. I don’t think we did a very good job in front of Buque when he was in there. We just seemed to pick up the intensity when Higgy went in.”
Plenty of Bandits players stepped up to fill the void left in part by Callum Crawford, who was serving a one-game suspension, along with injured veteran Mark Steenhuis.
Jordan Durston recorded eight points (2+6), Byrne had five points (1+4), Vaughn Harris added four points (2+2), and Nick Weiss scored twice while leading scorers Mitch Jones and Dhane Smith continued to help carry the team.
Jones finished with a game-high 10 points (3+7) and made an impact on both ends of the floor.
“The thing I liked about Mitch, he was real responsible getting back and playing ‘D’,” Cordingley said. “There’s not too many players that can do what he does on offense and defense.”
The same could be said about Smith, who had a breakout game of his own with nine points including four goals, several of the highlight-reel variety.
“Dhane led us tonight, his leadership was real good,” Cordingley said. “He scored some big goals when we needed it, made big plays. He showed some grit in the corner, mucking for balls. And when your best player is doing those things, it’s only going to rub off on everybody else and make us a better team.”
The game marked a missed opportunity for the league’s top offensive and defensive team to stay unbeaten. Mark Matthews had a team-high eight points (2+6), Ben McIntosh and Robert Church both had hat tricks, and Evan Kirk made 42 saves in the losing effort.
Even with the loss, the Rush still hold a 16-4 (.800) record at home in the regular season since the team relocated to Saskatchewan in 2015, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the Bandits in overtime.
Buffalo will enjoy the win and a bye week next weekend before starting the second leg of a three-game road trip with some confidence ahead of their rematch in Rochester against the Knighthawks on Saturday, Feb. 3.