1/2/2019 1:43:00 PM / John Gurtler
Hey Nineteen / Please take me along so we can slide on down
Yes, these Steely Dan lyrics sound pretty good as we enter a new year. With that 1980 track in mind, let's hope the Bandits can keep their game sliding into the win column like they did last Friday with their 16-10 victory over Vancouver.
It all comes down to stopping the ball at one end and filling it up on the other. The Bandits did that exceptionally well against the Warriors, including an 8-1 run in the second quarter. A hard-nosed defensive effort led by goaltender Matt Vinc also shut down Vancouver’s attack.
"The second quarter was the best lacrosse I've seen the Bandits play in a long, long time,” our broadcast analyst Randy Mearns said.
We've worked together the last 16 Bandit seasons, so that’s saying a lot from the former NLL star and head coach of Team Canada and St. Bonaventure University.
"The first half was really strong. I thought we shot the ball very well," head coach John Tavares said. "Our offense was moving, and they were working to get each other open.
"The defense was in good position, they collapsed when they had to, and Vno, I thought, played really good. Most of their goals were broken plays and turnovers."
In the radio pregame show last Friday night, I asked Tavares if there were any new plays installed for the Vancouver game, knowing that Dhane Smith would be out of the lineup. With a stone face, he gave his best Bill Belichick impression with a "Yes." And that was it.
"Lacrosse is a game where you need everybody participating, everybody needs to be involved," Tavares said. "And there are some basic rules you go through when you are playing the game of lacrosse. Standing around is not one of them.
"I constantly remind the guys what works and what doesn't work. It doesn't matter what your name or number is, if you’re in this position, you need to make sure you are active, setting picks, [have] better spacing and have more guys going through the middle."
Shawn Evans (7+21) and Josh Byrne (8+17), one and two respectively in NLL scoring, had 21 points combined last Friday. The Bandits offense has recorded 121 points, which is 41 points better than Vancouver and 25 points ahead of Calgary. And that includes two games without Dhane Smith. Vancouver and Calgary are the only other teams that have played three games.
"I think we are getting used to each other and things are starting to work out," Byrne said about working with Evans.
The change in the Bandits offensive attack was significant, and it started with speed.
"Having a faster pace and moving our feet with cuts to the middle, gave us a better opportunity to move the ball. It's all about riding those waves knowing that lacrosse is a game of momentum," he said.
The supporting cast of Thomas Hoggarth (2+4), Jordan Durston (0+4) and Zach Herreweyers (2+1), who was inserted into the lineup at game time, chipped in with 13 points as well. Hoggarth now has eight goals and seven assists for 15 points, is third in team scoring, and is shooting 33 percent from the floor.
It was a surprise to see and hear that Corey Small, who was just about to go against his old team, was a healthy scratch from the game. With all of the players on the active and practice roster, the coaches wanted to get a couple of other players in. It doesn't matter what your name and number might be, even with nine seasons and 569 points, your number could be called to sit out.
"When everybody is contributing, everybody is a threat. When you become predictable, it’s easy to defend," Tavares said. "When I don't know which one of the five guys is going to be a threat then that’s a good offense, and I thought we had that for the most part."
Not only did Vinc play well, turning aside 38 Vancouver shots, the defense preformed their duties with a tenacious attack.
"We did a good job maintaining the lead," Vinc, who earned his 100th career victory, said. "We are not going to establish our systems in two or three games, what with the short training camp and limited amount of practices. I think we've done a pretty good job."
And what about the 100th career victory?
"You don't look at that milestone, you just look at the wins," he said. "I was fortunate to get the win and the 100th with a lot of family and friends here and that’s what is going to make it special."
Gosh, too, I loved the duke between Bryce Sweeting and Mitch Jones. Sweeting's eyes and post-fight romp was reflective of how focused and ready the Bandits were.
"I've had the opportunity to play with Bryce in the summer. He's a great team guy,” Vinc said. "He's going to do whatever it takes and he's tough to play against. We need Bryce to play hard-nosed."
I counted seven transition points on the score sheet, which includes four goals. Great to see, too, the return of Matthew Bennett to the lineup after a year of rehabbing his knee and score as well.
Chase Fraser had assignments all over the floor, including in the physically demanding faceoff circle, where he won 15 of 22 draws for 68 percent.
"Faceoffs is an underrated role. Fraser was out there battling, he had a great game all around," Byrne, who scored three goals and seven assists against the Warriors, noted.
"You don't realize how tiring that job is, getting down on one knee every time there is a goal, plus playing offense and defense. A big credit goes out to him for sure."
In all 11 players contributed in scoring totaling 42 points. Congratulations to rookie Ian MacKay for scoring the first two NLL goals of what will be a fine career. In the early stages of rookie scoring, MacKay is fifth with two goals and two assists. Too, forgot to mention last week, Matt Gilray's first goal of his career.
Defensively, Nick Weiss was relentless scooping 12 loosies, which gives him 27 for the season and seven caused turnovers. Captain Steve Priolo, playing in his 109th consecutive game, had 11 loose balls and three caused turnovers.
"That was a big win for us and hopefully it will carry over against Rochester next week," Tavares said.
And that will be a big test this Saturday night on the KeyBank Center playing surface. The Knighthawks make their way up the 90 loaded with pretty much the same talent from last season, where they won 10 of their last 12 regular season games and made it to the NLL Cup against Saskatchewan.
This game will be a good test to see how the Bandits matchup. Point blank, this is a strong Rochester team.
And it starts between the pipes with goaltender Angus Goodleaf, who, after 10 seasons in the NLL (three with the Bandits) finally gets the starting role. After learning from the best as a backup behind Vinc, Goodleaf turned in a 50-save performance last Saturday night against Philadelphia as the K-Hawks won 13-9. Anytime you can hold a team to nine goals, that’s showing your defense and goaltending is playing well and in sync.
Graeme Hossack, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year with 163 loose balls and 34 caused turnovers, leads the defensive corps that, too, have several new players. But 2018 Rookie of the Year Jake Withers (67 percent faceoff success) along with veterans Paul Dawson, and recently named captain Scott Campbell make for a solid backline and are good mentors for the new players.
Up front, there is a relentless amount of power, starting with Joe Resetarits who is coming off a 100-point season. Ninth-year pro Cody Jamieson, who racked up 89 points last season, hasn’t missed a beat. He recorded three goals and three assists last Saturday. All-Rookie team member Austin Shanks is coming off a 52-point campaign. And two other lefties, Kyle Jackson (37+36) and Cory Vitarelli (25+20), create a lot of havoc, especially against the Bandits.
It will be a strange encounter for the Knighthawks facing Vinc for the first time after eight seasons of knowing he was always there to backstop them. Too, Vinc feels the same.
"As a player, I knew this day is going to come. I have a lot of great friends on that team but when you hit the floor, it’s all about wins and losses and I just want to keep this team rolling," he said.
"We are going to have our hands full but hopefully we come out with the same type of effort we had against Vancouver."
This is the first of three regular season meetings between these two clubs. Buffalo plays in Rochester Jan. 26 and Feb. 22.
If you won’t be at KeyBank Center, broadcast coverage of Saturday night's game in Buffalo with the Bandits and Knighthawks will be on B/R Live starting at 7:30 p.m. Radio coverage will be on ESPN 1520 AM with the pregame show starting at 7.
Randy Mearns joins me in the booth while Dave Buchanan will report between the benches.
We will also be are honoring our Hometown Heroes throughout the night. Heroes, use promo code HERO for a discount on tickets here.
So, hey ’19! Happy New Year! All the best for everyone with health and happiness in 2019!