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Bandits throw down the hammer, oh what a weekend!

Filed under: Sports

ROCHESTER…With two huge and dramatic wins over their biggest geographic and division rivals, the Buffalo Bandits have put a death grip on the National Lacrosse League eastern division standings, and the opportunity to host at least two possible playoff games in the friendly confines of HSBC Arena.

Following Friday night’s big win in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, where they dispatched the once invincible Toronto Rock by an 11-8 margin, the Bandits traveled to Rochester to face the Knighthawks at Blue Cross Arena. Mark Steenhuis’ timely goal from the doorstep of the crease, coming with just 53 seconds left on the clock, propelled the Buffalo Bandits to a 9-8 victory before a loud and clearly bipartisan crowd of 9216 at Blue Cross Arena.

This one did not start well from the Bandits. Maybe trying to shake off the fatigue of having to pay back to back nights, or just fighting off the energy and distractions of the loud crowd, Rochester scored first, then kept piling on the goals, two of them shorthanded, and built a 5-2 lead by the end of the first quarter, a period in which the Bandits only threw seven shots on net.

But Buffalo would come storming back. All of a sudden it was Rochester hitting crossbars, misfiring on open shots, and Bandits goalie Mikey Thompson coming up huge in net when he had to. Kyle Clancy got the party started right off the opening faceoff, Johnny Tavares added two, and Tom Montour got in on the scoring with his own shorthanded magic on a turnover, finished off with a Nathan Gerbe-esque spinorama move. By halftime the teams were knotted up at 6. “We wanted to cut down the passing lanes, they were getting some outside shots on us and I thought in the second quarter they did an even better job on us. But then they hit posts, I think five or six in the second quarter. We were lucky to draw even in the first half,” explained Coach Darris Kilgour.

Both the Bandits and the Knighthawks settled down in the third quarter, with spectacular goaltending at both ends from Thompson and the K-Hawks’ Matt Vinc. Only one ball found the back of the net, but it was a huge one. Tracey Kelusky’s laser from the point beat Vinc with just 0.9 seconds left on the shot clock. Buffalo entered the 4th quarter with a 7-6 lead.

Buffalo would make it 8-6, thanks to Tavares’ third goal of the night, but Rochester managed to tie things up midway. From there it was tenuous ball possessions, great defense and well executed playmaking. Just as it seemed that this game might be heading to overtime, Clancy fed the ball to Steenhuis in close, and he put it away to give the Bandits the 9-8 lead.

On the next possession, Buffalo managed to get control of the ball and immediately called time out. Inbounding with 43 seconds left, this would be no repeat of last week’s collapse. Steenhuis maintained possession of the ball for almost the entire 30 seconds, flipping it harmlessly away as the shot clock expired. Rochester had one last chance with 14 seconds let, but were unable to put together a decent scoring chance as Buffalo’s defenders jammed the center of the slot. The clock hit zero, and the cheers of thousands of jubilant Bandits fans in the building could be heard all the way across downtown Rochester’s Broad St.

Coach Kilgour heaped a lot of praise on his star of the night, Mark Steenhuis, who was awarded the “game kimono” for his heroics. “He was struggling the last couple of weeks getting his shot on the net, but he’s a tremendous athlete and worked real hard to get that last goal. The hard work is there and I’m just happy to see him get the game winning goal.” Kilgour seemed to be flying high down in the corridor as the whoops and the hollers emanated from the locker room behind him. “I can’t say enough about the boys. I can’t say enough about Mikey (Thompson). This is what the Bandits do. We’re pretty vocal about how good we are.”

Goaltender Mike Thompson always seems to be brandishing a big smile, but tonight’s toothy grin was almost off the face. “It took a bit to warm up tonight, but this is how I roll I guess. The guys stepped it up in the second quarter, and I began to bear down.” Thompson said he feels great. “I don’t know how to explain it. I can see the ball real well. The defense is playing beautifully. Our theory on defense is just a pressure defense. We’re just trying to get better at every game.”

With the injury bug hitting guys like Roger Vyse and Frank Resetarits, fan favorite Kyle Clancy has been pressed into action, and is loving the chance to contribute. Clancy had a goal, and added a key assist on the game winning goal. “It’s better to be in the game and be a part of it. I’m doing the best of can with the opportunity being given to me.” The coach has no defined role for Clancy. “A goal a game, set up picks, scoop up loose balls, contribute in any way I can,” Clancy replied.

Orange and black clad Bandits fans filled about one third of the arena, and their presence was felt not only in the stands, but throughout the streets of downtown Rochester on a sunny springlike day. The energy of Banditland was acknowledged by the coach and several of the players. “These Buffalo fans are so great, we saw the signs and the flags in the stand. Nowhere are there better fans than in Buffalo,” said Steenhuis. Kilgour added, “I think for us it’s a far bigger deal. Coming out, hearing the ‘Let’s Go Bandits’. The announcer is chanting ‘defense’, and our crowd is replying ‘offense’. ‘B-O-X.’ Everything we can hear, they (the Knighthawks) can hear, and it’s got to be demoralizing to be sitting on the bench at home and having another team come in and really control the crowd. Our fans are the best in the league. By far. Not even close. Anyone can say what they want but we have the best fans and we prove it week in and week out.” Clancy also chimed in, “We pull into the parking lot here in Rochester in the afternoon, and Bandits fans are tailgating and grilling and playing pickup lacrosse games on the asphalt. I just had to pause and soak it in, these hundreds of Buffalo people all over the streets, and say to myself, ‘Whoa! How good is this?'”

So here’s the scenario. The Bandits, now 10-4 face the Boston Blazers next Saturday at HSBC Arena at 7:30. Win and they clinch the Eastern Division. They will also be watching the goings on over in the west, with Calgary holding an 11-4 record and holding the tie breaker against Buffalo, which could impact home field designation for the NLL Championship game. Next Saturday will be Rich Kilgour night, as the Bandit’s icon from the early days through his retirement two seasons ago will see his number 16 retired. It should be a great night in Banditland!