NLL: Smith, Bandits stay hot and jump into first place

BUFFALO, NY – February 4th, 2023 : NLL regular season game action between the Rochester Knighthawks and Buffalo Bandits at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY (Photo: Michael Hetzel)

There were frigid temperatures in Buffalo, New York on Saturday night, however the inside of KeyBank Center was piping hot. The second installment of the “Battle of the I-90” was taking place, as the second-place Bandits took on the first-place Knighthawks. Fourteen thousand plus riled-up fans donning both teams’ colours were on the edges of their seats. Buffalo could take over first place with a win against their rivals.

Are the Bandits the comeback kids? Also, what in the world does John Tavares tell the boys in the locker room at halftime? If somehow the game was cut in half, Rochester would’ve won handily based off of their first-half performance. However, lacrosse is four quarters and it takes a full 60 minutes to win games (Duh). Buffalo came out red-hot in the second half, to defeat Rochester 13-10, giving them the first place in the East Division. The anticipation and the playoff-like atmosphere were almost intolerable.

These two teams know each other all too well. With eight former Bandits now playing for Rochester, shots, tendencies or gameplay in general is presumably easy to figure out. The beginning of the first quarter was a stalemate, but at the 8:54 mark, Dalton Sulver got Buffalo on the board first. Not sure if it was a “troll” or not, but “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner blared through the arena. That jam is the goal song for the Knighthawks in Rochester. Mind games, perhaps? Rochester silenced the crowd with two-straight goals, one from Thomas Hoggarth on the power play and the other from Ryan Smith. 2-1 Knighthawks after one.

Banditland is a difficult place to silence. Rochester did it perfectly to begin the second quarter. To add on to their two-goal run to end the first, they tacked on three more. Goals were scored by Curtis Knight and two by Connor Fields, the second being on the power play. This appeared to be a runaway for Rochester, but Buffalo had an answer in the form of a three-goal clip of their own. Reigning Player of the Week Dhane Smith scored the first two and Sulver notched his second of the game. 5-4 Rochester going into the half.

Matt Vinc made quite a few timely saves in the first half. In total, he made 23 saves on 28 shots. Rylan Hartley was spectacular, making 23 saves on 27 shots.

“I think it’s a fun spot to play, especially as the home team,” said Connor Fields at halftime about being back in Banditland. “We know it’s a game of runs, we may have ours, they may have theirs. We’re going to try to stay true to our game plan and try and come out at the end.”

As previously stated, Buffalo seems to be the comeback kids as of late. Normally, falling behind early isn’t the best of scenarios, but if you have second halves like the Bandits have had recently, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. The second half in this one was no different. Buffalo outscored Rochester 7-1 in the third quarter. The Bandits started the frame off with another three-goal run. The captain Steve Priolo, Brandon Robinson, and Bryce Sweeting all beat Hartley, and just like that it was 7-5 Buffalo with 11:10 to play in the quarter.

Celly of the night definitely goes to Sweets as he attempted, what we think, was the “Griddy.”

Ryan Smith stopped the Buffalo momentum temporarily with his second goal of the night. The pace slowed down a bit with good defense and transition from both sides. Buffalo did go on another run to end the quarter. Someone who has really stepped up for Buffalo on offense is Ian MacKay. Mickey notched his first of the night with a nice pump-fake and snipe from distance. The other three of the run were scored by Tehoka Nanticoke on the power play, Brad McCulley, and Dhane Smith’s hat trick. 11-6 Buffalo going into the fourth.

You really didn’t think the first-place Knighthawks weren’t going to make this interesting, did you? Rochester scored the first two goals of the fourth quarter, one from Ryan Smith and the other from Fields, giving them each a hat trick. Dhane Smith answered thirty seconds later with his fourth of the game. Knight got his second at the 10:24 mark, and the next goal wasn’t until McCulley’s second at the 3:02 mark. In between, Buffalo really slowed the game down and eliminated any Rochester chances. Holden Cattoni scored in the final seconds, but that’d be all she wrote. Your final from Buffalo, 13-10 Bandits.

Players of the game for Buffalo were, McCulley (2+3), Smith (4+6) and Nanticoke (1+3). Vinc was world class in the second half, and was a big reason Buffalo came out with a win. The veteran goaltender made 47 saves on 57 shots. As for Rochester, Fields (3+4), Smith (3+3) and Knight (2+1) led the way. Hartley struggled in the second half, making 42 saves on 55 shots faced.

“I thought the guys played well,” said Tavares postgame. “We were just lackadaisical, taking stupid penalties, turnovers. It was just a great effort all the way from Max Adler taking faceoffs, to Matt Vinc playing in net.”

“We’re gritty, we’re a gritty team,” said Nanticoke about the second half comebacks lately. “We have a lot of depth and we believe in each other. There’s no doubt on our bench.”

“I’m happy to be here, to be a role guy,” said McCulley. “Tonight felt good, it felt like I was helping the team out in the right way. We have the best fans in the entire league. We’re so lucky. Couldn’t be more thankful for them.”

Buffalo (7-2), now sits atop the East Division. They have two weeks off to prepare for the visiting Philadelphia Wings (3-4), February 18th at 7:30 p.m. Rochester (6-2) has now lost two straight. They look to right the ship as they travel home to take on Halifax (4-4), this Saturday at 7 p.m.