The Buffalo Bandits’ “drive for five” was underway at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York Saturday night. The visiting Albany FireWolves were looking to spoil that party and advance in this year’s playoffs. Albany had a tough task, as Buffalo finished as the league’s top team, and had the support of 12,535 of the Banditland faithful. These two teams met twice this year, with Buffalo winning both.
If you’re a fan of back and forth, edge-of-your-seat type lacrosse, this was the game for you. But seriously, who isn’t? With only four total goals scored at halftime, Buffalo turned on the gas and beat Albany 10-5 to advance to the conference finals.
Before the game, Buffalo captain Steve Priolo was asked how they were going to limit Albany’s chances and specifically shut down the pairing of Ryan Benesch and Joe Resetarits.
“Both Benesch and Resitarits are 100/100 guys, so we need to be on them 100% of the time. If we can stop their transition, we’ll be in a good spot,” he said.
The “100/100” that Priolo was referring to was Benesch and Resetarits being able to eclipse 100 points in a season, effortlessly. Being able to hold a potent FireWolves offense to only five goals, and the Benesch/Resetarits combo to only one total point on the night, smelled like a clear-cut recipe to a win. But before we get to the action, let’s talk goaltenders.
On one side, you have the reigning Goalie of the Year in Doug Jamieson. With a 0.787 save percentage, Jamieson was in the top 10 in almost every category this year. On the other side, there’s Matt Vinc. With a 0.807 save percentage, and being in the top three in every category, the seven-time Goalie of the Year’s resume absolutely speaks for itself.
Onto the game. The game’s first goal wasn’t scored until the 5:43 mark, when Reilly O’Connor tickled the twine on the powerplay. It wasn’t for a lack of chances however. Stout goaltending and excellent defense from both sides was the story. If you’re Albany, that seemed like the perfect start: limiting Buffalo’s high-powered offense and getting the first tally of the game on the road. Buffalo answered right back with a goal from Dhane Smith that bounced and snuck past Jamieson. 1-1 at the end of one.
The second quarter was almost a mirror image of the first. Only two goals were scored, one by each side. Vinc and Jamieson were sparkling, and both defenses were stifling. The one major difference is the gap between the two goals. Resetarits got his first and only goal of the night just over three minutes in to make it 2-1 FireWolves. Buffalo’s goal wasn’t scored until there was 2:00 left. Ian MacKay took a pass in transition, head-faked, and beat Jamieson. The roof nearly blew off the arena. While yes, MacKay’s goal only tied the game up, it proved to be way more than that. In one-and-done games, momentum is everything, and that goal was the momentum Buffalo needed going into the half. 2-2 after two.
A tie game, tons of scoring chances, phenomenal goaltending, and 30 minutes left to decide your fate. This is the epitome of playoff lacrosse. Vinc shined stopping 25 of 27 at the half, and Jamieson was much of the same, stopping 27 of 29.
The third quarter started and the scoring picked up a bit. Smith got his second of the night just 14 seconds into the frame. Talk about a fast start. Josh Byrne got himself in the goal column shortly thereafter, to give Buffalo a 4-2 lead. Two goals is nothing, but with the way both goaltenders were playing, it seemed like way more. Jacob Ruest stopped the bleeding for Albany with a snipe from just ahead of the restraining line. Byrne and O’Connor got their second of the night and Connor Fields scored on the powerplay, to make it 6-4 Buffalo going into the final frame. Keep an eye out for Byrne’s second, as it was quite sneaky. Byrne backed down an Albany defender, faked a behind the back, and shot forwards, beating Jamieson.
Chris Cloutier opened the scoring for Buffalo in the fourth, just under two minutes in. Remember all that talk about momentum? Here it is. With 11:02 left in the fourth, Benesch took a shot and it landed in the hand of Steve Priolo while he was in the crease. Priolo was hit with a penalty for closing his hand on the ball, but because he was in the crease, it resulted in a penalty shot.
Now, in Buffalo when an opposing player shoots, and Vinc makes a save, P.A. announcer Chris Swenson asks the crowd, “what’s he got?” and the crowd responds with “nothing.” Former Bandit Benesch lined up for the penalty shot, came in, shot, and Vinc made a right shoulder save. Swenny asked the crowd, “what’s he got?” and almost 13,000 said “nothing.” Talk about the roof blowing off and talk about momentum. Cue that scoring hiatus and goaltender battle again. Colton Watkinson scored the game’s next goal with 4:41 left, to make it 7-5. That was as close as Albany would get. Fields got his second, and Frank Brown and Priolo added empty netters, to make it 10-5 Buffalo.
Players of the game for Buffalo depend on your view and the magnitude of their performance. If it was scoring, it was Smith (2+4), Byrne (2+2) or Fields (2+2). If it was game changers, it was Priolo (1+1), 14 loose balls, and a heck of a defensive game. If it’s goaltending, Vinc was a brick wall, stopping 45 of 50 on the night. As for Albany, it had to be O’Connor (2+2) and Jamieson, who kept Albany in the game, stopping 49 of 59.
John Tavares praised both goaltenders post game. “It was a great lacrosse game. The offense played well in the first half, we just didn’t put the ball in the net.”
Tavares added, “both teams had great chances to score in the first half, they just didn’t get it past the goalies.”
Ian MacKay commented on Albany’s grit. “Credit to Albany and their defense and Jamieson. He gave them a really good chance. We just wanted to trust the process and stay with it.” MacKay also commented on the crowd, adding, “this is the best arena to play in and the best fans to play in front of. They definitely helped us out and as goals started to go in, it got louder.”
Next up for Buffalo, is a rematch with Toronto in the conference finals. Some could call this a revenge tour, as Toronto won two of the three games against Buffalo this year. The first game of the best of three is Sunday night at 6pm in Buffalo.