By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
Things are finally starting to click for the Buffalo Bandits. And with the NLL playoff race heating up as the regular season winds down, it couldn’t come at a better time.
The Bandits jumped out to an early lead and moved one step closer to the postseason by holding on for a 14-11 home win over the New England Black Wolves before a crowd of 13,709 at KeyBank Center on Saturday night.
After last week’s 20-7 rout of New England that saw Vaughn Harris emerge as the unlikely hero, another pair of Bandits rookies played the part in the rematch. Josh Byrne scored four times and Chase Fraser had a hat trick to help Buffalo (8-7) move into a first-place tie in the East Division.
“That one was a must-win for us,” Byrne said. “We knew that going in. And we knew after last week, they were going to come out firing. And they did. They played their hearts out. Luckily, we came out with a [win].”
While Byrne continued his record-setting first-year campaign, Fraser’s breakout performance proved especially timely as Buffalo’s 2017 second-round pick made the most of his first action in over a month.
“That’s what we expected of Chase,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “That’s why we drafted him. He’s a big kid. He’s athletic. You see his goals that he scored are similar to Byrne’s. Jumping up in the air, twisting the stick and that. I thought he stepped in real well. For a guy that hasn’t played in 4-5 weeks...he’s been positive and nothing but team. And tonight, he was rewarded.”
The rookies aren’t the only ones spearheading Buffalo’s late-season resurgence. Bandits goaltender Alex Buque made 54 saves and shut out New England in the third quarter for another strong showing in net. Up front, Shawn Evans (1+6) and Dhane Smith (1+5) played distributors while Jordan Durston and Mitch Jones both scored twice.
The first quarter was all Bandits to start. Smith opened the scoring with the man advantage 1:54 in and five seconds later, Fraser scored off the faceoff for a 2-0 lead. After Buffalo’s powerplay struck again with Byrne’s first to extend the lead, Evans scored the Bandits’ fourth goal midway through the quarter before New England had its fourth shot on net.
Fraser made it 5-0 by collecting a pass from Evans in front and twisting mid-air for a highlight-reel goal with 2:30 on the clock.
“Probably the most athletic kid I’ve ever seen in my life,” Byrne said. “You see him doing backflips and stuff. Just flying through the air...it’s unreal. Super happy he got his chance to get back in there and put some in the net.”
The Black Wolves got on the board with two late goals in a 29-second span, both by NLL leading goal scorer Kevin Crowley, then later pulled within 5-3 early in the second quarter.
Again down by three, New England converted on two Buffalo penalties before Crowley’s fourth of the night tied the game at 7-7 with 4:40 left in the first half. Byrne stopped the run with a sidearm one-hopper in the final minute to put the Bandits back ahead 8-7 heading into halftime.
The game turned into a defensive battle in the second half as both goaltenders shut the door. New England was a crossbar away from tying it halfway through the third quarter but Fraser leapt through the crease moments later for his hat trick goal to give Buffalo a 9-7 lead.
Crowley kept the Black Wolves within striking distance with his fifth goal early in the fourth quarter, right before taking a vicious cross-check to the back after the whistle. New England quickly scored on the ensuing powerplay to tie it at 9-9.
Less than a minute later, Byrne once again regained the momentum for Buffalo, earning his hat trick with another sidearm goal to go ahead 10-9 as the game turned back into an offensive shootout.
The crossbar again came into play, this time in the Black Wolves’ favor. Smith appeared to give the Bandits a two-goal lead but New England challenged the ruling on the turf and the call was overturned after video review showed Smith’s foot in the crease.
But Buffalo continued to apply pressure on the attack instead of sitting back. Jones scored to extend his goal streak to all 15 games this season before the Black Wolves responded 14 seconds later to cut the Bandits’ lead back to one.
Byrne’s fourth of the game less than a minute later put Buffalo up 12-10 as the flurry of goals continued. New England answered right away but so too did the Bandits with Jones’ diving effort for his second goal to make it 13-11 with 6:27 remaining.
With 2:08 left, Durston put the game out of reach by netting his second goal for a 14-11 lead off a one-timer from Evans, who notched his game-high sixth assist of the night.
Tied with the Rochester Knighthawks (8-7) atop the division, with Georgia (7-7), Toronto (7-7) and New England (6-8) right behind, the emotions of an intense playoff race were evident for Buffalo’s embattled group of players.
“Just seeing how tight the East is right now,” Buque said. “Everything counts. Obviously, you get emotional...you care about the guy beside you. You care about winning. And it’s these guys ‘til the end.”
Entering their final bye next weekend, the Bandits then head west to visit the Calgary Roughnecks, who they beat 13-8 earlier this year, for their last road game on Saturday, April 14.
“Every game in the league is important,” Fraser said. “Every game should be a playoff game. Or treated like a playoff game. Here on out, it’s going to be a battle.”
Buffalo will finish the regular season with two divisional games at home, first by hosting the Toronto Rock on Saturday, April 21 before the Rochester Knighthawks come to town for the finale on Saturday, April 28.
“We’re in the playoffs right now in the East Division,” Cordingley said. “We’re 8-7. Rochester won, they’re 8-7. Then everybody else is 7-7...we’re playing two of those teams that are trying to get a playoff spot. This is playoffs for us. It’s going to show our character.”