NLL: Emotional 18-17 win for Bandits in game one over Rock

Dhane Smith celenbrates. BUFFALO, NY – May 15 : Game 1 action of the NLL East Conference Final playoffs between the Toronto Rock and the Buffalo Bandits at the KeyBank Center on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY (Michael Hetzel/NLL)

In terms of a lacrosse game, game one of the conference finals between the Buffalo Bandits and Toronto Rock was an instant classic. But for the Bandits and the city of Buffalo, it was far more. Tragedy struck the city of Buffalo Saturday afternoon, as a heinous, senseless mass shooting at a local grocery store left 10 people dead. The attack was racially driven, and that hits home to the entire city and organization. The Bandits are huge advocates for equal rights, and players like Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne speak so well about the progress of players and people of colour in the game of lacrosse, along with just everyday life.

“When you look at the big picture in life, lacrosse is a very small part of it”, said Bandits’ head coach John Tavares. “In my heart, it felt like they were winning that game for the community.”

Winning that game is exactly what Buffalo did. In front of an emotional crowd, 10,258 to be exact, the Bandits took game one over the Rock 18-17.

Let’s get to the game. This contest was tit-for-tat, as the league’s top two teams fought it out for a full 60 minutes. Byrne opened the scoring just 33 seconds into the game with a physical drive to the net. Twenty-five seconds later, Rob Hellyer answered right back. Ian MacKay and Zach Manns traded goals to keep the game tied. Buffalo went on a run, with goals from Connor Fields, Steve Priolo, and Smith to make it 5-2. Priolo’s was a fantastic individual effort as he fought off two Rock players, picked up a loose ball, and dove at the crease, beating Nick Rose. Justin Scott scored in the final minute of the quarter to make it 5-3 Buffalo after one. Pretty sure there’s still a burn mark on the net from Scott’s shot, as it was an absolute snipe.

Lacrosse is a game of runs, as they say. That’s exactly how Toronto opened up the second quarter. Manns got two more, giving him a hat trick, and Tom Schreiber got two of his own, and all of a sudden it’s 7-5 Rock with 8:28 left in the quarter. How did Buffalo respond, you may ask? With a five-goal run of their own. Chase Fraser notched two, Chris Cloutier scored twice, and Smith got his second. Whew. Keep your eye on the SportsCenter Top 10 for Fraser’s second goal. Fraser took a behind-the-back pass from Byrne, sliced through the middle and shot between his legs. The ball went between Fraser’s legs, a Rock defender’s legs, and Rose’s legs, into the net. Filthy stuff from two of the young Buffalo forwards. Rock captain Challen Rogers got his first of the night with two seconds left, to make it 10-8 going into the half.

Both offenses were clearly the story in the first half. As far as the goaltenders, Matt Vinc stopped 20 of 28, and Rose stopped 21 of 31.

Tavares defended both goaltenders after the game, considering the high scoring.

“It’s easy to look at goaltending and go, ‘oh you have to have that.’ These guys are very, very accurate. They can pick the smallest corner from a lot of different spots on the floor. When you see that ball going in, it’s usually not the goalie’s fault.”

Steve Priolo celebrates after scoring a playoff goal. BUFFALO, NY – May 15 : Game 1 action of the NLL East Conference Final playoffs between the Toronto Rock and the Buffalo Bandits at the KeyBank Center on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY (Michael Hetzel/NLL)

Chase Fraser was asked at halftime about transition and creating more chances in the second half. “Offensively, we have to play with a defensive mindset, a short shot clock. Defensively, we have to come up the floor with speed and make smart decisions with the ball.”

The start of the third quarter was a continuation of the back-and-forth nature of this game. Byrne opened the scoring just 33 seconds in, to get his second of the night. There was a bit of a lull in the action after, as the next goal wasn’t until Cloutier got his hat trick with 9:42 left in the frame. It’s insane to even say that five-ish minutes is a “lull,” but with the way goals were being scored in this one, that five minutes felt like an eternity. Clooch’s goal was challenged by Toronto, due to him being very close to the crease. As “Let It Be” by The Beatles rang through KeyBank Center and after a relatively long review, it was deemed inconclusive and the goal stood.

Toronto needed an answer, and fast. Remember that game of runs comment? Here we go again. The Rock scored six straight, four of which were to end the third quarter. Dan Craig notched two, Manns got his fourth, and Rogers got his second, to even the score at 12 at the end of three. Fifteen minutes left, the league’s top two teams, deadlocked, in playoff lacrosse? Sign us up.

As previously stated, Toronto scored six straight. The fifth and sixth in that run were from Brandon Slade and Rogers, giving him the hat trick. The Rock were now up 14-12 with 12:22 left in the frame. Cue another Buffalo five-goal run. The loose ball machine, Kyle Buchanan, started it off. Bucky scooped up a rebound and buried it. Next, “Air Byrne” got his third and fourth of the night to give Buffalo the lead back. The next two were courtesy of Tehoka Nanticoke and Fields and were highlight reel goals, as well. First was the strong rookie Nanticoke, shaking off two defenders, head faking multiple times, and beating Rose. Then, Fields ran behind the net, did a little shimmy, and dunked from behind the net.

Wait, you didn’t think the Rock wouldn’t make this interesting, right? Toronto answered right back with two goals of their own, from Hellyer and Scott. 17-16 Buffalo, with 2:49 to play. Smith and Schreiber got their hat tricks, and Toronto only trailed by one with 11 seconds left. Oh, you want more action? Hang tight. On the ensuing faceoff, TD Ierlan won it cleanly, dished it to Hellyer, who shot and the ball hit the pipe. Oh my word. Your final, 18-17 Buffalo. It wasn’t super windy outside, that was Banditland finally exhaling.

Players of the game for Buffalo were Byrne (4+7), Smith (3+7) and Cloutier (3+2). Fields and Fraser also had four point nights. Vinc stood tall late, stopping 41 of 58 on the night. As for Toronto, it was Manns (4+1), Rogers (3+2) and Schreiber (3+5) who led. Rose had himself a solid game as well, all things considered, stopping 33 of 51.

The post game press conference was as emotional as it gets. Considering the circumstances and the state of the team and the whole city of Buffalo, everyone needed this win.

“I’m so happy for Banditland coming out and showing a lot of love in a world where we do have a lot of hate, unfortunately,” said Byrne after the game.

Byrne also commented on the offensive output and flashy goals saying, “with everything that happened, it was tough to live in the moment. As those goals were happening, you felt blinded in a way.”

Dhane Smith was very emotional after the game as well. He was asked about a pregame speech he gave the team.

“I’m not the type of guy to talk too much. I’m a shy guy and I don’t like to talk about my feelings. I did get emotional before the game. Basically, my story was, that I play lacrosse because I love it, and I want to show kids of colour that they can play the top of the level and be a pro.”

Smith ended by saying, “we wanted to win for the City of Buffalo.”

Win is what they did. A fantastic playoff lacrosse game, on such an emotional night in Buffalo, New York. This game showed that the world is much bigger than the game of lacrosse. There is no room for hatred.

Buffalo sits in the driver seat in the series, as they travel to FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton for game two this Saturday night at 7 p.m. If game one is any indication as to how this series is going to go, we’re in for a treat. If necessary, game three will be back in Buffalo, May 28th at 7:30 p.m.