NLL: Bandits prevent rival Rock from clinching playoff spot

Thomas Hoggarth celebrates a goal. Buffalo Bandits vs Toronto Rock at KeyBank Center, March 23, 2019. (Photo by Bill Wippert)

The Buffalo Bandits told the fat lady to wait for another game as they came back from a four-goal deficit to beat the Toronto Rock 8-6 on Saturday night at KeyBank Center. The Bandits, of course, sit on top of the NLL standings and were the first team to clinch a playoff berth. The win prevented the Rock, who started the season strong but are 1-4 in their last five games, from clinching for yet another week.

The three-game series between the Rock and Bandits is even at one after Saturday’s win. Toronto gave Buffalo its first loss of the season, 17-12, back on December 21st. The two teams will matchup for a third and final time next Saturday in Toronto.

To say it was a slow start out of the gate for the Bandits would be an understatement. Not only did the Bandits struggle to score a goal in the first quarter, but the Rock were having no problems finding the back of the net. Toronto ended the first quarter up 4-0.

Bandits’ head coach John Tavares, however, praised his goaltender Matt Vinc for putting the first quarter in the rearview mirror.

“In any sport, the great goalies can put those early goals past them quickly,” he said. “If you dwell on the previous goal, then the next thing you know another one is by you. Vno is a professional and that’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the world.”

Lucky for the Bandits, they had three other quarters to catch up, and that’s what they did. Dhane Smith got the comeback started with a goal, trimming the deficit to three goals. Then Thomas Hoggarth and Josh Byrne added goals of their own to get Buffalo to within one. Rounding out the first half was Jordan Durston, tying the game at four heading into halftime.

Byrne continued his strong performance in his first game back from injury, opening the second half with his second goal of the game and giving Buffalo its first lead over Toronto at 5-4. Smith added his second goal to extend the Bandits’ lead to two before the game became a back-and-forth affair with the Rock coming to within one only for the Bandits to respond. In the trade off of goals, Smith scored his third, ending the game with a hat trick.

“Dhane is someone who leads this offense,” Tavares said. “Along with Shawn [Evans], they are leaders and they find ways to score big goals. Dhane buried his opportunities tonight and overall he played a great game.”

Kevin Brownell sealed the 8-6 victory for Buffalo with a goal late in the fourth. With the win, the Bandits remain one game ahead of the Georgia Swarm as they look to lock up home-field advantage in the playoffs with three games remaining. Their next opponents will be the Rock again, a final regular season home game against the New England Black Wolves, and the last game of the regular season against the San Diego Seals.