By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
Coming off a long road trip home, the Buffalo Bandits still had plenty left in the tank as they sped past the visiting Georgia Swarm 18-9 before a crowd of 14,058 at KeyBank Center on Saturday night.
Fueled by their fourth straight win, the Bandits (6-3) now find themselves in the driver’s seat atop the East Division following the team’s challenging back-to-back weekend sweep.
“It’s really hard to get up for these games,” Bandits rookie Josh Byrne said. “You come off an eight-hour bus ride overnight, it’s hard to even sleep on the bus. Trying to sleep all day and it’s not really working out. And somehow, you pull off a win.”
With starting goaltender Alex Buque getting some well-earned rest after Friday’s success in New England, the Bandits handed the keys to backup Zach Higgins, who impressed with 54 saves against his former team.
“He was the main reason why we held them to nine goals,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “We had a lot of breakdowns defensively — especially in the first half — they had a lot of opportunities and he came up with huge saves time and time again. It’s the best I’ve ever seen ‘Higgy’ play. He was spectacular.”
Higgins, who spent four seasons with the Swarm from 2013 to 2016, earned his second win of the year in his first start after being signed off the street by Buffalo in late December.
“I’ve known ‘Higgy’ for quite some time,” said Bandits forward Callum Crawford, who played with Higgins for three years in Minnesota. “He’s got something to prove...he really does. He’s been in this league, this game for a long time. He’s motivated and he’s getting the opportunity to prove the type of goaltender, the type of competitor that he is.”
With Higgins shutting the door, it was also one of those nights where everything seemed to go in for Buffalo. Leading scorer Dhane Smith lost the ball while attempting to shoot but inadvertently picked the top corner for a goal early on while several other shots trickled behind the goalie and into the Swarm net.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to work hard and the lacrosse gods will reward you,” Byrne said. “Can’t say enough about our defense too on top of that…’Higgy’ had an unreal game.”
Putting in a complete effort in all facets of the game, the Bandits’ offense kept up its torrid scoring pace that has seen them combine for a total of 68 goals over their last four games.
Byrne and Crawford both scored hat tricks while Jordan Durston had seven points (2+5) and Smith added four points (2+2) points to stay on top of the NLL scoring race. Mitch Jones made an impact as a playmaker for the second night in a row with a goal and six helpers to follow up his six-assist showing on Friday.
The NLL’s clear-cut leader in rookie scoring, Byrne has turned it up of late with 11 goals in the past three games. The first overall draft pick in 2017 has turned heads with an arsenal of acrobatic plays, including leaping across the crease to score, somewhat of an homage to one of his veteran teammates.
“Obviously, you guys have seen Callum Crawford doing that,” Byrne said. “For me personally, I try and take a little bit out of each player’s game. Like the ‘Dhane Smith move’ where I juked underneath and took his move, now taking Crawford’s moves. Just going to put everybody together and make it Josh Byrne’s...the young guys are learning a lot from the older guys and that’s kind of what our success has been so far.”
Byrne, who started the year with more modest numbers as he adjusted to the speed and strength of the pros, has found his rhythm with five or more points in each of his last four games.
“That kid is special,” Crawford said. “I think he had some doubters early on in this season. We knew what was there. And he’s showing the world...I like to say ‘the world’s feeling the Byrne right now.’”
The rookie isn’t the only newcomer to recently contribute as Thomas Hoggarth and Liam Patten again lit the lamp after both scoring on Friday, Vaughn Harris extended his goal scoring streak to five games since joining the active roster, and Chase Fraser had a goal and an assist in his return to the lineup after missing over a month due to injury.
Unlike their previous three games, Buffalo didn’t have to wait until the second half to find their groove offensively. The Bandits scored six unanswered goals to start the second quarter for a 10-2 lead, forcing Swarm starter Mike Poulin to the bench in favor of Warren Hill.
Down 11-4 at halftime, Poulin returned to the crease to start the third quarter but the Bandits kept their foot on the gas pedal by scoring 24 seconds in and again three minutes later to increase the margin to nine.
Leading 14-7 after 45 minutes, Buffalo kept piling it on in the fourth quarter by scoring twice in the first 1:34 of the final frame before adding two more goals later on to secure the decisive win.
“Every time you play on the road, it’s a tough time to get on a run,” Swarm forward Miles Thompson said. “The crowd definitely helps the home team, definitely an advantage. Especially these guys, they fill their stadium pretty good.”
Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley moved past the century mark for regular season victories over the weekend and currently ranks third in NLL history in wins (101) behind Derek Keenan (128) and Darris Kilgour (121). Cordingley improved to 27-13 (.675) at home during his five-year tenure behind Buffalo’s bench as he looks to lead the Bandits back to the playoffs in 2018.
“We’re just 6-3, that’s the way we look at it,” Cordingley said. “We have a lot of work to do here. We know it’s a marathon, not a sprint...we’re in first but that means nothing. Everyone is coming after us.”
The Bandits are 22-10 all-time against the Swarm, bolstered by a 13-5 mark in Buffalo. The teams will close out their two-game season series on Sunday, March 18 at Infinite Energy Center in Georgia.
Georgia’s up-and-down start to their NLL title defense continued as the Swarm (3-4) snapped its two-game win streak after starting the season with a 1-3 record. 2017 NLL MVP Lyle Thompson, Jesse King and Randy Staats all scored twice for Georgia, but it wasn’t enough.
“We’re going to put this game past us and focus on tomorrow,” Miles Thompson said. “You can’t take games off in this league. As an offense, we didn’t play bad. Just weren’t getting the bounces that we normally get.”
Buffalo, entering its third bye weekend of the year with a half-game lead on Toronto for first in the division, returns to action at home against the Rochester Knighthawks on Saturday, Feb. 24.
“If you ask anybody, they don’t view us as the top team in the East,” Crawford said. “We know what we have in our locker room. But we’re the underdog when we go out there. And we’re okay with that.”