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A Buffalo Championship?
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Bandits hope to capture Champions Cup at home this weekend.
The past 12 months have been a pretty miserable time for sports fans here in Western New York. Brutal disappointments for our Sabres, Bills, Bisons…let’s not even go into the major college basketball programs.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have one chance, just one, to honk our car horns in jubilation, dance in the streets, and cheer to our hearts content as a Buffalo team brings home the hardware?
That opportunity comes this Saturday.
Yes, we have a team in the National Lacrosse League. They are called the Buffalo Bandits. They are one of the flagship franchises in indoor lacrosse, actually, having played in the league since 1992.
This Saturday, the eyes of the lacrosse world will be on Buffalo as the Bandits host the Portland Lumberjax at HSBC Arena. At stake? The National Lacrosse League championship and the Champions Cup.
All this comes about as a result of a sparkling run of success in the closing weeks of the 2008 regular season and two convincing playoff wins here at home.
For the Bandits, this is not unfamiliar territory. Back in the 1990s, the team won three championships in its first five years of existence, including the 1993 season when the team ran the table, winning all of its regular season and playoff games.
But there has been a championship drought since 1996. The team got to the finals in 1997, losing to Rochester at home. In 2004, the Bandits had to do it all on the road, and they ran through both Rochester and Toronto in the earlier rounds, before losing to Calgary in the championship game at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:|
Mark Steenhuis: Scored seven goals in last playoff game vs. New York.
John Tavares: One of last two original Bandits, still club leader with 87 regular season points.
Kevin Dostie: Clutch goal scorer in these playoffs.PORTLAND
Dan Dawson: Team’s leading scorer, scored five goals and five assists in last week’s win over Calgary.
Derek Malawsky: Former Bandit can score and sop up loose balls.
Dallas Eliuk: This gritty and playoff-hardened 44-year-old goaltender saved the day for Portland last week.
The 2006 championship game here in Buffalo was an ugly one. The Colorado Mammoth came to town and put this one away early, beating the Bandits 16-9. Fans who stuck around downtown late that evening took some solace, as TV sets in bars that night were locked on game five of the NHL Buffalo-Ottawa playoff series. Jason Pominville’s shorthanded goal in overtime (“These guys are good!…Scary good!”) took a bit of the sting out of that disappointing night in Banditland.
The Bandits finished the 2008 regular season at 10-6. Only stumbles against their nemeses the Toronto Rock, where they lost both games, and the Rochester Knighthawks, to whom they lost two of three games, held the team from an even better record. Neither Rochester nor Toronto qualified for this year’s playoffs.
Is this the year? Can this group of Buffalo players shake off the setbacks of the past few years and take that last big step to a championship trophy?
Mark Steenhuis is giddy at the prospect of a title but does not want the team to get ahead of itself. “Hopefully we get to win a championship for these fans and this city. You don’t want to think this is our time. You just want to stay focused. I’ve been in two since being here and lost both of them. I want to end that streak this year.”
Going on 40, John Tavares has been referred to by his teammates as “the ageless wonder.” He has broken every individual record there is, including most career goals and most career total points, and shows no sign of slowing down. Following last week’s win over the New York Titans, Tavares quipped “I hope we can win this one next week. I might only have five or so more years to get another chance.”
Tavares has been in big games before and calmly does his job even as the spotlight is glaring on him. Referring to his play against the Titans, where Tavares participated in 12 of the 19 goals, head coach Darris Kilgour said “He got the quietest 12 points ever. I had no idea he had 10 assists, that’s how quiet he is, that’s how unassuming he is.”
Buffalo’s entry into this year’s playoffs as the top seed had its dramatic twists and turns. All four qualifiers in the East Division finished with identical 10-6 records, but through a series of tiebreakers, the Bandits qualified as the top seed. Following their win over Portland that night, they had to wait for the outcome of two out-of-town games to find out who they would be playing and where. Once the finals were in, home field for Buffalo was assured.
Fans attending the playoff games at HSBC Arena these past two weeks were treated to the edge-of-your-seat action that is a hallmark of the game. Against Philadelphia, the Bandits put together a huge fourth quarter, confounding Philly attackers as they tried to transition out of the defensive zone, and getting key blocks and intercepting passes to keep the Wings hemmed in deep. Mike Accursi scored back-to-back goals to give the Bandits the lead, and then Kevin Dostie scored a huge insurance goal with just over three minutes left. Said Coach Kilgour, “It hit us as we headed into the fourth: This is it. This could be our season. Let’s just quit complaining and put our heads down and get to work.”
Last Saturday against the red hot New York Titans, Buffalo shook off the early cobwebs and rattled off three straight goals in the second quarter, including Brent Bucktooth’s second shorthander of the night. New York’s frustration started to show by the third quarter and the fists were flying, earning misconducts to two Titans players. All that did was motivate the Bandits even more. “We just decided that they were not going to come into our house and knock us around,” said Kilgour. By the time the dust settled, the Bandits had themselves a huge 19-12 win and a chance to play for the championship.
Kilgour reports that Mike Thompson will get the start in net for the Bandits this Saturday. “Mikey did a great job for us all season long and in the first playoff game and he deserves the start.” Unlike the last two championship games, all Bandit players are healthy and ready to go Saturday.
Bandits captain Rich Kilgour says the team is not overconfident at playing Portland. “Throw their regular season record out the window. They’re 2-0 in the playoffs. We’ll have no problem being ready for them.”
The crazy and loyal Buffalo fans have played a huge role in the team’s success, and many of the players have repeatedly said how much they enjoy playing here. “These really are the best fans anywhere,” said Steenhuis. Accursi, who returned to Buffalo via a blockbuster trade on March 25 and has been a huge cog in the team’s late-season surge, said, “Buffalo is the last team where I ever want to play indoor lacrosse. I love it here.”
The casual fan coming to the arena this Saturday will see the pageantry and emotion in all its glory: the guys behind the penalty box leading the crowd in the “B-O-X” taunt each time an opponent is flagged for a penalty; fans clad in orange tuxes and foam 10-gallon hats; the players jubilantly interacting with the fans in the post game victory lap. Even the PA announcer’s trademark, ear-splitting shrieks makes the event unique.
The championship is there to be had. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is work to be done. But these guys have been through the hurt, the despair, the disappointment. Perhaps this is their time, and our time too.
Edge 2008 National Lacrosse League Championship Game: Buffalo Bandits (12-6) vs Portland Lumberjax (8-10). Saturday, May 17, 7:30pm, HSBC Arena. $31-$41, tickets available online at bandits.com, the HSBC Arena box office and all tickets.com outlets.blog comments powered by Disqus
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