It was “Elimination Weekend” at the First Niagara Center.
First the Buffalo Sabres were mathematically eliminated from the postseason with a loss to the New York Rangers on Friday night. Twenty-four hours later, the Buffalo Bandits – the Sabres’ roommates in the downtown arena – saw their playoff hopes die too.
The Bandits suffered a 10-9 loss to the Rochester Knighthawks before a record crowd of 19,070. Buffalo, which needed a victory to reach the postseason, finished with a record of 6-10 and will watch the other eight teams in the National Lacrosse League take part in the playoffs.
“It’s our own doing,” Bandits coach Darris Kilgour said. “We battled for the last couple of games. I wish we had done that earlier. I think the six-game losing streak was our downfall.”
The Bandits and Sabres had never missed the playoffs in the same season before. That wasn’t the only disappointing fact about the season for the indoor lacrosse team, as it set a team record for losses in a season with 10. Buffalo’s home record was particularly disappointing, as it lost its last six games in First Niagara Center after winning its first two.
The Bandits don’t even get the usual benefit of having the worst record in the league. Buffalo already traded its first-round draft pick, which will be the first choice overall, to Minnesota.
Veteran John Tavares says it is a bit embarrassing to be the only team in the league to go home before the postseason begins.
“We’re in a very tight league,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if an eighth-place team won it all. But we put ourselves in position to miss. We couldn’t win one when it mattered.”
The Bandits had avoided elimination the week before when it won in Washington to set up a loser-go-home game with the Knighthawks. Buffalo seemed energized by that early in the game.
Rookie Dhane Smith supplied some extra electricity by scoring only 39 seconds into the game. Aaron Wilson, Shawn Williams and Smith added goals within the next eight minutes, and the Bandits found themselves up, 4-1.
“It was unbelievable,” Williams said about the atmosphere at the game’s beginning. “Words cannot describe how it felt. It was unbelievable coming out of the tunnel.
“Then, it settled down a bit.”
One of the Bandits’ biggest problems – giving up long runs of goals to opponents – hurt them again. Rochester slowly but surely started scoring on Kurtis Wagar, starting his second game as Anthony Cosmo was sidelined by the effects of a concussion. By the time 13 minutes had elapsed, the Knighthawks had scored six goals in a row and taken a 7-4 lead. Craig Point scored the seventh goal; he finished with four goals.
“It seemed like when I got the ball, I’d just find some space, so I took it,” Point said.
“He had my number tonight,” Wagar said.
Buffalo closed to within 7-5 on a goal by Wilson, and then the game turned into something of a chess match. Each team scored two goals in the third quarter, and the Bandits and Knighthawks only added one more score in the first 14 minutes of the fourth quarter. Buffalo simply couldn’t get inside the Rochester defense.
“They adjusted to us and packed it in,” Tavares said. “We didn’t get enough quality shots.”
There was still time for one last bit of drama in the game. Mark Steenhuis scored his second of the night to cut the lead to 10-9 with 15 seconds left, and the Bandits won the ensuing faceoff.
Tavares wound up with the ball, but the Knighthawks’ defense was up to the task of disrupting Buffalo’s chance. Rochester rolled the ball to the other end of the field as the buzzer ended the game and the season.
The season came with an obvious turning point. The Bandits were three seconds away from beating Philadelphia on March 1. A win there would have put Buffalo at 6-3 and in a tie for first in the East Division. Instead, the Wings tied the game and went on to win in overtime, starting Buffalo on its skid.
“We had them and we let it slip away,” Williams said. “We never could put a finger on what happened after that.”
Kilgour thought it was a matter of the team not being on the same page enough.
“It’s who comes out and executes,” he said. Cosmo “had some troubles. At times the defense struggled. At times the offense struggled. We couldn’t get all of the units going together.”
Kilgour, who had never missed the playoffs since taking over the coach in 2003, said he wants the challenge of helping the team improve next season.
“If I’m lucky enough to come back next year, I’d love to coach these guys again,” he said.