NLL: Bandits win sixth straight, Cloutier nets four in return  

Chris Cloutier celebrates his OT winning goal in front of the Banditland faithful. (Photo: Mike Hetzel)

When it comes to Buffalo, there are a few things that are for certain. As someone who lives there and was born and raised, I can vouch. The people are as nice, yet, battle tested as they come, the weather is as unpredictable as it gets and their sports teams sure know how to cause way-too-early cardiac issues.

14,896 fans braved some snowy weather to get down to the KeyBank Center to watch the Bandits return to their home turf. In their previous five games, Buffalo trailed at halftime and came out with victories. In this one, they didn’t trail at half, rather, they trailed late in the third quarter. With more late-game heroics, and the return of Josh Byrne and Chris Cloutier, Buffalo completed the season sweep of Halifax, beating them 10-9 in overtime. Someone get my inhaler.

“It’s not by design,” said John Tavares. “We’re playing with fire a bit here. Teams are strong, you can’t take anybody lightly.”

There isn’t much to report for the first quarter. Both Matt Vinc and Warren Hill were sparkling, and only one goal was scored in the frame. Randy Staats beat Vinc at the 3:05 mark on the power play to give Halifax a 1-0 lead going into the second. If that lulled you to sleep, fear not, because the rest of the game surely made up for it.

Buffalo rattled off two straight to start the second quarter. The first was from Josh Byrne and the second from Chris Cloutier on the power play. Definitely a good sign for both of them returning to the lineup and having an immediate impact. Chris Boushy tied the game back up for Halifax on the next possession, only for Byrne to give Buffalo the lead back less than 20 seconds later. Cloutier notched his second power play goal of the night, but was answered by Tyson Bell. As if Byrne and Clooch’s return wasn’t enough to get the crowd pumped, at the 3:51 mark of the second, Nathaniel Kozevnikov scored his first career goal with an absolute rocket. Kozevnikov was drafted by Buffalo in 2019 but didn’t see the field until this season due to injuries.

“It’s been two or three years now,” said Tavares about Kozevnikov. “It’s great to have him back in the lineup. He’s a nice addition, he gives us another threat on the outside.”

For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Buffalo led going into the half. 5-3 Buffalo going into the break.

Both goaltenders were brilliant in the first half. Vinc was world-class, making 29 saves on 32 shots. Hill, while giving up more goals than his counterpart, was arguably better. He stopped an obscene amount of Buffalo breakaways and made 22 saves on 27 shots.

“Pepas” by Farruko rang out through the arena almost as soon as the third quarter began, and that could only mean one thing. Clooch got his hat trick just 18 seconds into the frame. Unfortunately for the Banditland faithful, that’d be the last goal Buffalo would score for quite some time. Halifax proceeded to go on a six-goal run. Scorers were Staats, his second, Boushy, his second, Eric Fannell twice, and “Mr 500” Ryan Benesch. Benesch’s goal was pure brilliance as he received a pass at the restraining line and fired a long shot before the Buffalo defenders could get set. You could hear a pin drop in Buffalo, as Halifax had an 8-6 lead going into the fourth.

The final goal of that six-goal clip was courtesy of Boushy just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, giving him his hat trick. Could the resilient Bandits make another comeback? Unsung hero and loose ball machine, Kyle Buchanan, got the party started with a sick dunk from behind the net, on the power play, to cut the deficit to two. A few minutes later, Byrne got his hat trick with a nice dive across the crease. With 4:26 to play, Buffalo found themselves in the Halifax zone. Who but Dhane Smith threw a pass to Buchanan on the doorstep. Bucky threw a couple head fakes and buried the tying goal, his second of the quarter.

The final minutes were an absolute track meet. End-to-end with unreal transition and even better goaltending. In quite literally the final second of the game, Vinc made a save to take this one to overtime. Free lacrosse in the 716.

In overtime, both teams touched the ball twice. Halifax’s two possessions were lacklustre, as they didn’t get good looks. The second Buffalo possession was when the magic happened. Byrne drew a double team which left Cloutier open. Clooch threw a sick pump fake that shook two T-bird defenders, and then rifled the winner past Hill. No, there wasn’t another earthquake in the WNY area, just a party at KeyBank Center. Your final from Banditland, 10-9 Buffalo.

The song “Pepas” (which is Cloutier’s goal song), is about living your life to the fullest because you only get one. Clooch, the Bandits, and all of Banditland were doing just that Friday night.

Players of the game for Buffalo were Cloutier (4+1), Byrne (3+6) and Buchanan (2+1). Smith was kept out of the goal column, but did have seven assists on the night. Vinc continues to show why he’s the best in the world. The veteran stood tall late and made 48 saves on 57 shots. As for Halifax, Boushy (three goals), Staats (2+2) and Benesch (1+2), led the way. Hill was a stud all game long, but fell off in the fourth. He made 39 saves on 49 shots.

Cloutier had this to say about the winner: “Yeah, the ball just came to me, I had my hands free, and luckily it went my way.”

Clooch added about the comebacks as of late, “that’s what makes this group special. We’re never out of it, we always think we have a chance, and we’re always going to keep fighting.”

Tavares’ message after the game was short and sweet.

“I thought our defense played pretty well. The guys did a great job of maintaining their composure.”

Buffalo (10-2) continues to find ways to win and stay atop the East Conference. They look for retribution after last year’s Finals, as they host Colorado (5-6) next Saturday at 7:30 pm. Halifax (5-7), looks to shake this one off if they want to make the playoffs. The Thunderbirds travel home to host Toronto (9-3) in a huge East Conference matchup. That game is Saturday as well, at 6 p.m.