By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
Slowing down the league’s top two scorers proved to be too tall of a task for the Buffalo Bandits (6-6) as they came up short against the Saskatchewan Rush (11-2) with a 16-10 home loss at KeyBank Center on Friday night.
Robert Church scored six goals, NLL points leader Mark Matthews recorded nine points (1+8) and goaltender Evan Kirk made 42 saves to help Saskatchewan avenge Buffalo’s overtime win in Saskatoon earlier this season.
“They’re awfully good,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “I don’t think we played very well tonight, again. Second game at home in a row, we laid a goose egg. Our offense in the first half...it looked like the first time we were out in training camp.”
Dhane Smith led the Bandits with six points (3+3), Shawn Evans scored a hat trick, Mitch Jones had four points (1+3) and Alex Buque stopped 37 shots as Buffalo dropped its third-straight game.
Evans, who was acquired via trade at the end of February, was more comfortable in his first home appearance after the two-time NLL MVP was held to one assist in Colorado during his Bandits debut two weeks ago.
“I felt a lot better out there tonight,” Evans said. “Felt like I was hitting the spots I wanted to hit. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to come up with a win. Obviously, we want to do more. One of those games that the bounces weren’t going your way, they’re finding it, and it ends up in the back of our net. It was tough all around.”
Saskatchewan opened the scoring 45 seconds into the game but Evans responded for the Bandits less than a minute later. The Rush regained the lead before Josh Byrne leapt across the crease to tie it at 2-2 midway through the first quarter.
The frantic early pace, which saw sticks in passing lanes and multiple possessions by both teams without a shot on net, seemed to suit the Rush’s preferred style. Saskatchewan’s trademark pressure defense created turnovers and transition opportunities, resulting in a three-goal burst and eventual 5-3 lead after 15 minutes.
“Name of the game,” Cordingley said. “That’s called the ‘reverse transition’...and we didn’t have guys holding back to make sure that we had that area covered. We weren’t smart in that situation.”
Two Rush goals put them up by four until Smith’s stutter step goal on the penalty kill cut the score to 7-4 with 4:05 remaining in the half. Saskatchewan responded on the same power play to lead by five, which prompted Buffalo’s Craig England to try and spark his teammates and home crowd by squaring up with Nik Bilic for a spirited fight right after the next faceoff.
“Craig England did a great job of stepping up and fighting,” Smith said. “But he shouldn’t have to do that.”
The Bandits appeared to answer the rallying cry with numerous chances to trim the deficit but Mitch Jones had a goal waved off and they were later unable to convert off a timeout in the final seconds of the second quarter. Buffalo trailed 8-4 entering halftime with Saskatchewan keyed by five assists from Matthews and Church’s four first-half goals.
Marty Dinsdale netted his second of the game 4:48 into the second half and Jeff Shattler scored from deep to widen the Rush lead to 10-4. Evans kept Buffalo in the game with two more goals but Saskatchewan replied to both right away, extending the score to 13-6 after the third quarter.
With a pair of goals from Smith and Jordan Durston, the Bandits found themselves down by five 2:09 into the fourth quarter. Just as they had done all night, another rapid response by the Rush stopped the run before another tally put them ahead, 15-8.
Refusing to go away, Buffalo lit the lamp twice in 31 seconds to narrow the score to 15-10 with a little less than 10 minutes to go. But Church’s sixth goal of the contest four minutes later ended any hopes of a Bandits comeback.
Currently in a three-way tie with the Toronto Rock and Rochester Knighthawks for second place in the East’s log-jammed standings, all only a half game back of the New England Black Wolves, Buffalo’s focus shifts to a crucial stretch of divisional matchups.
Buffalo will finish off their back-to-back weekend in metro Atlanta against the defending champion Georgia Swarm on Sunday, March 18 at 4:05 p.m. at Infinite Energy Center. The Bandits then face off with the New England Black Wolves in consecutive weeks, first on the road on Friday, March 23 before returning home on Saturday, March 31.
“We’re in the tightest division, battling for our lives to make a playoff spot,” Cordingley said. “And we don’t care which one we get, we just want one.”