NLL: Bandits spoil Knighthawks’ home opener

Ethan O’Connor of the Buffalo Bandits jumps to block Rochester’s Jeff Wittig. (Photo credit: Rochester Knighthawks/NLL)

A very windy and rainy day in Western New York meant trees were falling, lines were down and power was out everywhere. However, there was no lack of electricity in the air at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester as the Buffalo Bandits came to town. This massive interstate rivalry between Buffalo and Rochester did not disappoint as it was back-and-forth for a majority of the game. Buffalo must have some serious halftime conversations, because once again they came out hot in the second half, going on a 9-4 run to end the game, topping Rochester 12-8. Buffalo moves to 2-0 on the season while Rochester falls to 1-1.

The first quarter was owned by the Bandits. Buffalo came out hot with three goals, one from Dhane Smith, and two from Connor Fields. Fields had himself quite the evening, tallying four goals and two assists. His first goal of the night came with 11:43 left in the first quarter, as he took a pass from Kyle Buchanan and absolutely sniped a shot past Evan Kirk, from only a couple steps in front of the white line. Rochester played stout defense and was extremely physical with Buffalo, so being up 3-0 at the end of the first quarter was something for the Bandits to be proud of. Matt Vinc also helped the cause, stopping all 13 shots he faced in the quarter.

Buckle up for the ride that was the rest of the game. Between the physicality and the back-and-forth nature of this game, it had the feeling of a boxing match. Knighthawks forward Curtis Knight had himself quite the quarter as he notched a hat trick, tying the game at 3-3. Rochester’s defense showed out, holding Buffalo scoreless in the second quarter. Seemingly content with taking a tie game into the half, Buffalo put the game in neutral, just trying to survive. With 3.3 seconds left in the quarter, Knighthawks forward Holden Cattoni took a pass in the slot, worked around a pick and beat Matt Vinc to give Rochester a 4-3 lead going into the half.

Banditland, doesn’t this feel like déjà vu? Buffalo put themselves in a position where it was borderline panic mode. Adjustments and a revamped game plan at halftime needed to be had, or else it seemed like Rochester could run away with the game. Rochester was playing stifling and chippy defense, limiting Buffalo’s scoring chances and giving goaltender Evan Kirk a much deserved break. Just 1:25 into the third quarter, Rochester’s Jeff Wittig beat Matt Vinc top left after taking a slick pass from Shawn Evans. Uh oh. With a hometown crowd behind them, and being on a 5-0 run, the Knighthawks could do no wrong. Cue the John Tavares halftime speech magic. Just 20 seconds later, Buffalo’s Ian MacKay got his first goal of the year picking up a loose ball off the faceoff and beating Kirk to make it 5-4 Rochester. The goal by MacKay was the momentum shift that Buffalo seemingly needed. With goals from Matt Spanger and Chris Cloutier, Buffalo took the lead 6-5 with 6:07 left in the third quarter. A late goal from Rochester’s Charlie Bertrand made it 6-6 going into the fourth quarter. Everyone at Blue Cross Arena felt like they were on a teeter-totter.

The beginning of the fourth quarter was back and forth with strong defense and goaltending from both sides. With 9:40 left in the quarter, Cattoni snuck one past Vinc, making it 7-6 Knighthawks. Talk about a nail biter. Buffalo answered a mere 30 seconds later with a goal from Fields, giving him the hat trick and tying it back up 7-7. At this point, it was literally anyone’s game.

Realistically, it seemed as though the first team to make a mistake or go on a run, would end up coming away with a win. Buffalo was the team to go on that run. With three goals from Fields, Cloutier, and Buchanan in a two-minute span, Buffalo went up 10-7 and that was as close as Rochester would get. Buffalo flooded Kirk with a flurry of shots and were getting the better scoring opportunities. Buffalo added two more goals in the final four minutes as the rookie Tehoka Nanticoke and the veteran Steve Priolo got themselves on the scoresheet. Cattoni beat Vinc with 1:48 left in the game, punching his ticket into the 100-Goal Club. Cattoni’s late goal made it a 12-8 final, Buffalo spoiling Rochester’s home opener.

While it was a back and forth contest with plenty of lead changes, Buffalo’s second half heroics put the league on notice for the second week in a row. With a plethora of Bandits finding the back of the net, their offense was clearly the story again. Fields led the charge with six points (4G/2A). Vinc had himself quite the game as well, stopping 48 shots on the night and keeping the Bandits alive late in the game.

Unsung heroes include Chase Fraser in the faceoff circle and on transition, Kyle “the human vacuum” Buchanan on offense and picking up loose ball opportunities, and Bryce Sweeting. Sweets had himself a game defensively. His big body presence and physicality was pivotal late in the game, limiting Rochester’s chances and movement of the ball.

“They’re definitely not a team we can take for granted. We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Dhane Smith said prior to the game. “The first road game is always important. We just need a fast start and worry about five minutes at a time.”

Smith also commented on how well the Bandits fanbase travels and that he was extremely excited to experience the atmosphere in Rochester. It’s a safe assumption that the Bandits game plan, as explained by Smith, worked like a charm. Fast start? Check. Going up 3-0 to start the game is the epitome of a fast start. With the tit-for-tat nature of the game, it was almost a must that Buffalo took the game five minutes at a time, ultimately breaking through in the fourth quarter. As for the fans, there was a boatload of Bandits faithful in the 585 Saturday night.

Buffalo is 2-0 for the first time since 2012. They have some time to rest and plan as they travel home and sit for a while until Toronto (1-1) comes to town on January 8th, 2022. Rochester (1-1) has a quick turnaround, as they travel to Albany (0-1) for a matchup this coming Saturday.