For the third consecutive year, we are treated to an East Conference Final showdown between the Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock. To refresh your memory, the Bandits took the season series against Toronto and clinched the number one overall seed. Those three games had everything a lacrosse fan could ever ask for. This conference finals matchup is going to be one for the ages. In the opening round, both clubs had convincing victories to get to this point. Toronto beat Halifax 15-11, while the Bandits whooped Rochester, 20-8.
In Buffalo’s one loss to Toronto during the regular season, the Rock put a beatdown on Buffalo. However, Saturday night felt like a little retribution for the Buffalo kids. In front of a raucous Banditland, Josh Byrne and Matt Vinc showed out, as Buffalo returned the favor, beating up on Toronto 14-5. This game had the return of Tom Schreiber to the Rock lineup and featured a fully healthy Bandits offense.
Get your popcorn ready.
For the second game in a row, Buffalo wasted little time getting on the board first, much to the pleasure of the home crowd. Last week it was 23 seconds, in this game it was 30. Byrne found himself with the ball off the opening draw and fired a shot from just inside the restraining line that beat Nick Rose. Toronto answered right back, as none other than Tom Schreiber fired a bullet from range. Tehoka Nanticoke got his first with a beautiful spin and dive at the crease, and was quickly followed up by Chase Fraser’s first. Seconds after Fraser’s goal, Challen Rogers had the response. Quite the furious pace thus far. One of the more unlikely goal scorers for Buffalo, Justin Robinson regained the two-goal lead with a great full-field transition goal. The end of the first quarter saw a bit of a breakdown with a bunch of offsetting minor penalties. Rogers closed the quarter out with his second of the game. 4-3 Buffalo after one.
Buffalo started to take control of this game in the second quarter, and as you’ll see, it only went downhill for the Rock. The opening tally of the second quarter wasn’t until the 6:04 mark, as Byrne got his second. Thirty seconds later, Byrne got his hat trick. Byrne’s second was a gorgeous tic-tac-toe that started with Vinc, then to Dhane Smith, finishing with Byrne. The only Rock goal of the frame was courtesy of Rogers, also giving him a hat trick, but that was answered by Nanticoke’s second. 7-4 Bandits going into the break.
Vinc was sensational in the first half. The veteran netminder stopped 24 of 28. On the other side, Rose sparkled in some moments, but saw his club trailing. Rosey stopped 14 of 21. You’ll see in a few minutes that Vinc kept the pace and had a career night.
“I think we came out pretty hot,” said Nick Weiss at halftime. “We were flying around and dictating very well. We’re getting Vno the shots he wants and I think that’s helping out a ton.”
That downhill reference comes into play now. Buffalo blanked Toronto in the third quarter and tacked on six more goals to their lead, extending their run to seven. Fraser’s second and Ian MacKay’s first on a patented full-field transition goal, got the party started. The third of the six was Byrne’s fourth of the game and it was a beauty. Byrnzy saw himself on the crease, caught a pass one-handed, and finished with a twister. Kyle Buchanan got his first less than thirty seconds later, which chased Rose from the game. Uh oh. Troy Holowchuk was unceremoniously welcomed by two more from Byrne, his fifth, and Cloutier’s first on the power play. 13-4 Buffalo heading to the fourth.
The scoring died down in the fourth quarter and Buffalo sulked this game away. Despite being outshot, Vinc and the Bandits’ defense was unreal. Schreiber broke the Rock’s scoring drought with his second of the game, the team’s first goal in 18:53 of game play. The only other goal in the quarter was Cloutier’s second on the power play, to make it 14-5, which ended up being your final. Frustrations boiled over (more on the Toronto side) and a few offsetting roughing penalties were called, but that’d be it.
Players of the game for Buffalo were Byrne (5+2), Smith (eight assists), and Vinc, who remarkably made 52 saves on 57 shots. What’s left to say about Vno? Buffalo’s penalty kill was on display as Toronto went 0-5 on the power play for the game. For Toronto, Rogers (3+2) and Schreiber (2+2) led the way. Uncharacteristically, Rose struggled all game long. He made 17 saves on 28 shots in 36:31 of game play. Holowchuk did what he could, stopping 10 of 13 in 23:29.
“The guys were coming out to play and the ball was going in for us again,” said John Tavares after the game. “We didn’t give them much time and space to shoot the ball, which was big for us. I liked what I saw defensively, we just have to carry it into tomorrow night’s game.”
“Everyone is back and healthy, which is tremendous,” said Smith. “We’re happy with that game, but we can’t be satisfied. We’re hitting our stride at the right time, our defense has been our backbone all year, and our offense is finally putting the ball in the back of the net.”
About having Vinc in net, Smith said, “when he goes, we go. He’s been unbelievable since he’s been here in Buffalo. We lean on him.”
Buffalo, holds the all important one game lead in the series. No rest for the wicked, as these two clubs are back at it again Saturday night in Hamilton, Ontario. Faceoff for game two is at 7 pm from FirstOntario Centre. Buffalo obviously can close the series out with a win, but if Toronto wins, game three will be back in Buffalo on May 20th at 7:30 pm.