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Survive and Advance… Bandits win and move on in NLL Playoffs

Filed under: Sports

One of these nights, perhaps even this season, the Buffalo Bandits will cruise to one of those easy win, laughter variety type of games.

Just not yet.

On Saturday night at HSBC Arena, the Bandits opened their 2011 playoff season facing the Boston Blazers, the same team that embarrassed Buffalo just two weeks earlier at home.

But this time it was a different result. Thanks to a dramatic game winning goal by John Tavares in the closing minute, this coming after Buffalo had seen a four goal cushion evaporate late in the game, the Buffalo Bandits managed to escape with a huge 11-10 victory over the Blazers, sending 11,273 noisy fans in Banditland home happy.

To win a championship, Buffalo needs good goal-tending, and starting goalie Mike Thompson was tested early. Right off of the opening face-off, a scrum for the loose ball took about 20 seconds to sort out and out of that melee came two Boston attackers coming down a clean breakaway. Thompson stoned them. “Just stop the ball, continuing on, keep positive,” Thompson joked as he described the play.

Buffalo got on the board twice in the first quarter. Mark Steenhuis scored from the point 4 minutes in, then Roger Vyse snuck in behind the defenders and was unguarded right in front of the net. Boston would close to 2-1 as the quarter ended, and the Blazers’ defense played fantastically in front of their goalie, Anthony Cosmo, limiting Buffalo’s shot lanes and forcing the Bandits to take their chances from the perimeter or from behind the net. Vyse earned the “game kimono” thanks to his four goal and two assist performance. “I think it was our effort tonight. We wanted to execute our game plan, we wanted to go after them, we wanted to get the loose balls as much as we could. It worked out.”

The strategy worked, as Tavares and Vyse found the back of the net several times in the second quarter from the point, then Tracey Kelusky made one of those airborne, behind the net dekes which had the crowd buzzing. Buffalo led 7-4 at halftime.

By the time the third quarter got underway, both teams hunkered down, with great goal-tending at both ends and Thompson doing most of the damage, befuddling the Blazers attack, aided by a stifling Buffalo defense.

In the fourth quarter, the teams traded goals, and with less than four minutes on the clock, and Buffalo nursing a 10-6 lead, it was time to light the cigar.

But Boston had other plans. Right after Tavares’ power play goal at the 11:21 mark, Boston pulled their goalie, and answered with a goal of their own, and then another. The Blazers won their next possession, and got to within one with a long laser shot. Three goals, 32 seconds.

Coach Darris Kilgour kept play moving and did not call time out to settle his men down. A minute later, disaster hit as the Blazers scored the equalizer with under two minutes left. Just like that it was a new ball game. “All we can do is stop the run. They’re going to come back,” said Thompson. “They did a great job with their six on five package,” Kilgour admitted. “They buried their shots and the three goals they got were right inside the post nothing Mikey could do with them. We’ve got to be better prepared for the six on five on guess. We just needed to pick one off and get the easy empty netter but we couldn’t do it.”

Buffalo finally managed to gain possession, and served up a couple of great scoring opportunities, and as the clock ticked down under a minute, John Tavares was found clear right above the right slot. He launched a shot that beat Cosmo, and the Bandits had the lead back.”Tavares is just a scoring machine when he has that ball in his stick,” said Thompson. “Tracey Kelusky made a great play off the loose ball, and fortunately we got another chance, I shot and Anthony (Cosmo) got a piece of it and it went in. It was anybody’s game at that point,” Tavares added.

Buffalo managed to win possession, and played keep-away to kill 28 seconds. The Blazers got the ball back twice, with about 15 seconds and then 6.6 seconds. The game so started with Thompson making a startling save on the breakaway, and fittingly ended with him safely smothering the ball as the final horn blew. The Bandits would live for another day.

Holding court with the media with a lengthy and animated discussion, Tavares admitted that he wasn’t even on the bench when Boston mounted their four goal comeback. After scoring the team’s tenth goal, he was in the training room having a tight calf looked at, and could hear the noise as the Blazers made their surreal comeback. “Here it is 10-10, so it’s time to go,” said Tavares to the trainers. In yet another great story to add to his many accomplishments, Tavares returned to the bench, and to the playing surface, just in the nick of time to provide the last minute heroics. “I thought the offense did a great job staying in the game and maintaining their composure and staying focused, and once we got the ball, we got two three great chances in the last minute, and capitalized on one of them.”

Buffalo will next face the Toronto Rock, who won their first round game against Rochester on Sunday afternoon. The Bandits/Rock match-up is set for next Saturday at 7:30pm at HSBC Arena. Out west, Calgary and Washington won their two games and will also square off next weekend. Hopes for a championship game here in Banditland are on the shoulders of the Washington Stealth beating Calgary, and of course, the Bandits moving on past round two to the finals.

Photo credit: Drew Smeltzer