After an absolute slugfest against the Toronto Rock last weekend, the Buffalo Bandits took the field on a short week against the visiting Georgia Swarm, another pivotal East division matchup. Coming off a gutsy performance, Buffalo looked to bump their record to 4-0 for the first time since 2009. Georgia, a week removed from an overtime loss to Philadelphia, was looking to avenge that loss and get back into the win column. Beaten, bruised, and surely tired, the Bandits were going up against a very well-coached Georgia team, and undoubtedly one of the best scorers in the league in Lyle Thompson. A game where both clubs had a lot to prove was very much back and forth with no real swings in either direction. Buffalo topped Georgia 12-10. The Bandits were not going to let the Buffalo Bills home playoff game Saturday night steal their thunder.
The story once again was the dazzling Bandits’ offense. However, this week there weren’t as many familiar and repetitive faces lighting the lamp. All season long, opposing teams have struggled against Buffalo in the sense of who to focus on defensively. This game proved that on any given night, the Bandits could beat you with virtually anyone.
“That’s the awesome thing about this offense, anyone can go out and have a big night, or we can just spread it out evenly. That’s the beautiful thing about this offense,” said Buffalo’s Chris Cloutier after the game.
Cloutier opened up the scoring just 59 seconds into the game, beating goaltender Mike Poulin with a quick shot from the slot. With 11:52 left in the first, Brad McCulley, a guy who hasn’t cracked the Bandits goal column yet this year, got his first of his NLL career. After setting a phenomenal pick, McCulley took a pass and sniped it top right. Just about a minute later, Georgia superstar Lyle Thompson scored on a shot from downtown. Buffalo knew going in that he was going to be virtually impossible to contain. Thompson’s goal made it 2-1 Buffalo, and more importantly was the 200th of his already sparkling career.
Another infrequent goal scorer for Buffalo, Matt Spanger, lit the lamp with 9:57 left in the first, making it 3-1 Buffalo. Dhane Smith added another for Buffalo, and Thompson got his second of the quarter to make it 4-2 after the first.
A dominant first quarter by the Bandits was quickly silenced by a very resilient Georgia squad. Swarm forward Brendan Bomberry beat goaltender Matt Vinc just three minutes into the second quarter. One of Buffalo’s leading scorers this year, Josh Byrne got his first of the night shortly thereafter, making it 5-3 Buffalo. Byrne’s goal was shorthanded, so that was a huge momentum swing back to Buffalo… or so everyone thought. With two quick goals at the 7:40 and 6:25 marks, Swarm players Jordan Hall and Shayne Jackson said ‘hold on just a second.’ The game was deadlocked at five and Georgia had every ounce of momentum. With outstanding goaltending and transition from the Swarm, Buffalo was once again left scratching their heads in the second quarter of a game. Shocker right? Byrne notched his second of the game with 2:25 left, giving Buffalo their lead back. Seemingly content taking a one-goal lead into the half, Buffalo set up shop on offense for one last sequence. With a mere two seconds left, loose-ball machine Kyle Buchanan got a juicy rebound and put one past Poulin. 7-5 Buffalo going into the half.
While the second quarter was full of goals, the third quarter was more about the goaltenders and strong defense from both sides. Poulin and Vinc stood on their heads and completely shut down any and all chances from the opposition. Buffalo drew first blood in the third, as Smith scored on the powerplay with 6:49 left. Georgia’s Thomas Semple got the first of his NLL career with 2:02 left, cutting right down the middle and going airborne to beat Vinc.
That was the much needed breather that everyone in attendance needed. After an insane back-and-forth second quarter, buckle up for the fourth. Bomberry scored quickly for the Swarm, making it 8-7 Buffalo. Georgia did not seem to want to go away and Buffalo was doing everything they could to keep their lead. With 9:02 left in the fourth, KeyBank Center was rocking, as without question the goal of the game was scored. Chase Fraser took a pass, backed down a Swarm defender and fired a behind-the-back shot past Poulin “right through the wickets”. Alexa, play the SportsCenter Top 10 theme song
With two quick goals, one from Cloutier and one from Georgia’s Tanner Buck, Buffalo’s lead was 10-8 with 6:39 left in the game. Right when Buffalo had a three-goal lead, Georgia would answer back and answer fast. One of the unsung heroes for Buffalo this year, Ian MacKay, beat Poulin with 4:48 left. Three-goal lead, again. Georgia’s captain Jordan MacIntosh took the potential comeback into his own hands. With two goals less than two minutes apart, he singlehandedly made it a one-goal game. That was as close as Georgia would get. Dynamic rookie Tehoka Nanticoke added a slick behind-the-net diving goal for Buffalo to make it 12-10.
Going into this matchup, Buffalo was 24-12 all-time against the Swarm and 13-6 at home. Georgia’s story all year has been that they won’t just roll over. Outstanding goaltending from Poulin, saving 41 of 53 and resilience from top to bottom, was the story for Georgia. Thompson and MacIntosh also shone in their attempts to mount a comeback. Matt Vinc had another sparkling game, racking up 36 saves on 46 shots. Josh Byrne (2+5) was undoubtedly the player of the game, and as previously stated Buffalo had a lot of contributions from players we haven’t heard much from this season.
“At the end of the day [being 4-0] doesn’t mean anything; all we’re looking at is just to get better,” Byrne said. “Regular season really doesn’t mean anything; we’re really trying to mold our team and find our identity.”
Head coach of the Bandits John Tavares was asked about the back and forth nature of the game, saying “Well, I like the outcome. We found a way to maintain the lead. It seemed like when we got up 4-1, guys kind of thought it was going to be a point night, and we may have taken our foot off the gas too much.”
Tavares also praised the depth of the Bandits when it came down to the offensive side of the ball, as well as making lineups and walkthroughs, amidst the pandemic.
Georgia (1-3) has been in every single game they’ve played this year. They travel to Rochester (2-1) for a 6:30 p.m. game Friday. Buffalo (4-0) has to sit for a week due to a game postponement against Halifax. Tentatively, the Bandits’ next game is in two weeks, as they travel to New York (0-4) to take on the Riptide.