By Jeff Baker - Bandits.com
With their season on the line in a must-win game, the Toronto Rock stayed alive in the NLL playoff race and dimmed the Buffalo Bandits’ postseason hopes with a 16-11 road win Saturday night at KeyBank Center.
Rob Hellyer, Adam Jones, Brodie Merrill and Challen Rogers all had five points, Reid Reinholdt scored twice and Nick Rose made 35 saves as the Rock (8-9) avoided elimination from playoff contention.
Mitch Jones and Shawn Evans each recorded three goals and an assist and Dhane Smith added a team-high five points (1+4) in the losing effort as the Bandits (8-9) dropped their second game in a row to continue their up-and-down season.
“I thought our effort was there,” Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley said. “Battle was there. We weren’t smart. Five fast-break goals can be prevented and it wasn’t. Three short-man goals kills us. We’ve got to be smarter. You’ve got to play smart lacrosse in this league. When you make mistakes, they cost you.”
Improving to 5-3 on the road this season to offset their home troubles, the Rock are now 8-4 when outshooting their opponent compared to 0-5 when being outshot. The league leader in shots on goal, Toronto executed their gameplan by generating scoring chances while limiting Buffalo’s offensive time and space.
“We have opportunities to shoot and we don’t,” Cordingley said. “These little things that we’re not doing correctly, they build up. And that’s why we get results like we do. We’ve got to shoot the ball and we’ve got to shoot the ball a lot better.”
Buffalo shot the ball well to start and jumped out to an early 2-0 lead with tallies from Evans and Harris. But Toronto responded with a pair of goals 1:13 apart to even it at 2-2 midway through the first quarter.
A length of the floor pass found Latrell Harris who converted on the breakaway to put the Rock up by one before Hellyer extended it to 4-2 with a 4-on-4 goal with 1:04 left in the quarter. Jones stopped Toronto’s four-goal run for Buffalo 33 seconds later to cut it to 4-3 after 15 minutes of play.
The Rock cashed in a powerplay goal 46 seconds into the second quarter then silenced the arena with two more goals in a 23-second span to chase Bandits starting goalie Alex Buque with the score at 7-3.
If the switch to backup netminder Zach Higgins was meant to send a message to the Bandits’ bench, it seemed to work. Buffalo quickly answered the bell as Evans scored his second of the night to trail 7-4.
Jones faked the pass on a 3-on-2 rush and went shortside to make it 7-5 midway through the second quarter but Reinholdt again stopped Buffalo’s momentum with his second goal.
Buffalo made another push late in the half with two goals in 76 seconds from Smith and Justin Martin to pull within 8-7 headed into the break with the Rock ahead in shots on goal, 31-24.
Josh Byrne’s rebound goal with the man advantage 1:07 into the second half knotted the score at 8-8 until Toronto replied with three-straight goals of their own to go up 11-8.
As emotions ran high on the turf, a special moment unfolded throughout the entire building midway through the third quarter.
With the Bandits wearing commemorative jerseys and raising money for pediatric cancer care during the fifth-annual Tucker Out Lymphoma Night, former Bandit Shawn Williams addressed the crowd on the videoboard while players on both teams and fans all stood to pay tribute to the memory of his son Tucker.
“When you come to the rink and everything is Tucker, words can’t describe the way our family feels,” Williams said. “It’s a rollercoaster. So much goes into this night...it’s tough. The way Tucker was, you can’t back down. Part of our mandate now is to carry on his legacy. As hard as it is, we’re going to do it.”
Returning to action, Buffalo found themselves with a huge opportunity following a major penalty assessed to Toronto for a high hit on Evans. Jones got his hat-trick goal to narrow the score to 11-9 and possibly spark the start of another comeback bid. But Rogers and Hellyer took the air out of most of the crowd of 16,630 by both scoring shorthanded in the ensuing minutes to take a 13-9 lead into the end of third.
“Those are killers,” Cordingley said. “We have a five-minute powerplay and we’re usually real mint on those. And we weren’t...that kills you. Then, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Down 14-9 early in the fourth quarter after Jones’ third of the game, the Bandits showed some fight with Evans and Steve Priolo each scoring in 29 seconds to trail 14-11.
Pressing late in regulation, Buffalo pulled the goalie with three minutes remaining in favor of an extra attacker. The Bandits were unable to solve Rose before Merrill broke in and scored on Priolo, who was manning Buffalo’s crease, for a four-goal lead. Another Rock empty-netter in the final minute gave Toronto the 16-11 victory.
“We can’t really worry about tonight,” Cordingley said. “It’s over. Obviously, we’re going to be correcting things that we need to correct and get on the same page...we’ve got to get rid of this one right now and start focusing on Rochester because we still have a chance.”
While Buffalo may need some help from other teams as playoff scenarios in the convoluted East Division standings are still being determined, one thing is for certain. The Bandits must beat the Rochester Knighthawks in the regular season finale at home next weekend on Saturday, April 28 to have a shot at qualifying for the postseason.
“It was an emotional night,” Jones said. “Obviously, one that we wanted and needed. Back to the drawing board. It’s kind of difficult saying that every week...but we’ve just got to keep going. We’ve got one more chance.”