On a brisk Saturday evening in Buffalo, excitement was at an all-time high. Lacrosse was back! For the first time since March 2020, the Buffalo Bandits were taking the field. As if it couldn’t get any sweeter, this would be the first matchup between the Bandits and the Calgary Roughnecks since the 2019 NLL Championship. Bandits fans are all too familiar with how that series ended, with Calgary beating Buffalo 2-0 in the best-of-three series.
The Bandits have never forgotten those losses, so with the pent up energy from the pandemic postponement, took it out on the Roughnecks, pounding them 16-9.
Connor Fields had a glorious debut for his hometown team, acquired from San Diego in the offseason. He finished with four goals and one assist and nearly blew the roof off the building with his first.
“I always say it was my dream growing up to be a part of the Bandits and playing for the Bandits,” Fields said after the game. “I came to all these games as a kid and it was really special being out there, just to be playing out there and to get a win like that in that stadium in front of those fans. There’s nothing better than that.”
Fields definitely showed up and showed out in his debut for the Bandits, and fans definitely have to be excited for him to perform at a high level the rest of the season.
For the Bandits especially, the game started a lot like the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Slow and steady wins the race.
A very good Bandits offense and stout Roughnecks defense did battle for the first 5:18 of the game. Then the offense started clicking for the Bandits, or so they thought. Dhane Smith tallied the first goal for the Bandits with 9:42 left in the first quarter. Smith received a slick pass from Josh Byrne, shook a defender and beat Christian Del Bianco on the right side.
Now commence the back-and-forth for the rest of the half. Calgary answered back with a goal from Jesse King. With 4:10 left in the first quarter, Josh Byrne notched his first of the year, only to be answered by King once again, keeping the score at a 2-2 stalemate after the first quarter.
Buffalo came out of the gates in the second quarter with a quick goal from Byrne, only for Calgary to answer back 38 seconds later with a goal of their own from Tanner Cook. With 12:43 remaining in the second, the roof of Keybank Center nearly blew off. Buffalo defender Justin Robinson recovered a loose ball, stretched a deep pass to Kyle Buchanan, who then hit a streaking Tehoka Nanticoke right up the middle, and the rest is history.
Nanticoke, the Bandits first-round pick in the 2021 draft, beat Del Bianco top right and was mobbed by his teammates. Sneaking suspicions tell us that the Bandits will be calling Nanticoke’s number quite a bit this year.
But once again the ecstasy was short lived, as Calgary answered right back not even two minutes later. Sensing a pattern here? Calgary’s first lead of the game came with 9:48 left in the second quarter with a goal from Haiden Dickson, making the score 5-4 Calgary. Back and forth they went with stifling defense and a ton of solid goaltending from Matt Vinc and Christian Del Bianco. Buffalo got three in a row in a seven minute span. With goals from Nanticoke, Dhane Smith, and birthday boy Chris Cloutier, the game was sitting at 7-5 Buffalo with 2:31 left in the first half. At this point, fans were holding their breath as this could have been the point where Buffalo blew the doors off this game. But Calgary said, “wait just a second.” Curtis Dickson beat Vinc twice in less than a minute to tie it up once again 7-7 going into the half.
A tremendous first half of lacrosse left an eerie silence in the Keybank Center. Questions were being asked. Seven goals in the first half is nothing to scoff at, but the high-octane Bandits offense, and strong defense and goaltending seemed to have been struggling to pull away from a very good Calgary team.
A very powerful message must have been sent in the Bandits locker room at half, because the third quarter started up and so did that high-octane offense everyone is talking about. Seemingly as soon as the players hit the field to begin the third quarter, Byrne beat Del Bianco to make it 8-7 Buffalo, giving Byrne the hat trick.
One name that was not mentioned whatsoever in the first half was Connor Fields. Potentially a combination of nerves and being out-muscled, Fields was kept off the scoresheet in the first half. With 13:56 left in the third quarter, that certainly changed. Cue the roof blowing off again. The East Amherst native tallied his first of the season and first with the Bandits. Getting his first of the year definitely loosened Fields up for the rest of the game.
With 10:42 left in the third, arguably the goal of the game was scored for the Bandits. Dhane Smith brought the ball up and passed to Nanticoke in the corner. Nanticoke shook one defender for a moment, then was double teamed by two Calgary defenders, all while driving towards the net. Taking an absolute beating, Nanticoke spun away from both defenders and dove at the front of the crease firing a shot past Del Bianco. To make it even better, this insane goal gave the rookie his first career hat trick in his first career game. Goals from Chase Fraser, Byrne, Fields, and Smith put the Bandits up 14-7 and complete the seven-goal run.
An understandably pumped up Bandits team came out for the fourth quarter and put the game in neutral. With a back-and-forth beginning, Calgary’s Curtis Dickson scored twice to narrow the lead to 14-9. But that was as close as Calgary would get. Connor Fields scored at the 8:19 mark. Buffalo’s defense and goaltending came out to play, completely shutting down the Roughnecks in the second half. Fields added another with 3:48 left in the game, giving him four on the night, and capping off a phenomenal second half by the Bandits.
As previously stated, the Bandits offense is sparkling. Huge names, doing exactly what they were signed for and brought in to do. Players of the game were Smith with nine points, Byrne with seven points, and the new guys Nanticoke (3G) and Fields (4G/1A). Oh, and Matt Vinc, completely shutting down the Roughnecks in the second half and racking up over 40 saves on the evening.
“All of our offensive guys are a threat,” said head coach John Tavares. “I didn’t put any expectations on [Nanticoke and Fields]. I think they’ve done a good job of fitting in.”
And let’s talk about some “unsung” heroes, shall we? Players like Justin Martin, Sam La Roue, Justin Robinson and Kyle Buchanan. Martin, La Roue, and Robinson all played phenomenal games in transition and on the defensive side of the ball. Cleaning up loose balls and facilitating a fast paced transition, these three had a huge impact in the win over the Roughnecks. Kyle Buchanan also had four assists on the night and was a machine when it came to working the ball around and collecting loose balls to get the offense going. The main question that has to be asked however, is what clicked at halftime?
“We weren’t being smart in the first half. We gave them a lot of transition opportunities,” explained Tavares. “So we talked about that, even though they still got a couple off the bench.”
Saturday’s contest was definitely a good showing from the Bandits. Seems as though there were a few questions that were answered at halftime, and that high-octane offense is going to be a treat to watch the rest of the year. Next Saturday the Bandits (1-0) will take on the Rochester Knighthawks (1-0) at Blue Cross Arena. Always an exciting game between these two clubs, and it will be the first “Battle of the I-90” of this young season. Calgary (0-1) has some things to figure out, as they travel to Saskatchewan to play the Rush (0-1) Saturday evening.