ROCHESTER — The Buffalo Bandits couldn’t come much closer to reaching the National Lacrosse League’s championship round without actually playing in it.
But they came up one shot short, and as a result their season is over.
The Bandits dropped a 2-1 decision to the Knighthawks here on Saturday night, as Cory Vitarelli scored the game-winner at 1:56 of sudden-death overtime in the decisive mini-game. That gave Rochester a two games to one edge in the series. The Knighthawks had won the 60-minute regulation game earlier in the night, 13-8.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Joe Resetarits of the Bandits said. “We had our chances.”
The Knighthawks advanced to the finals, where they will play the Calgary Roughnecks next week. Rochester is hoping to become the first team in NLL history to win three straight championships.
If they accomplish that goal, they’ll certainly remember just how close they came to elimination in the mini-game. The format certainly lends itself to dramatics, as the 8,561 in Blue Cross Arena were held nearly breathless by the activity on the field.
Resetarits scored the mini-game’s first goal with 4:38 to play, giving Buffalo the early edge. Less than a minute later, Derek Suddons had a clear breakaway that would have given Buffalo a huge edge. His shot beat goalie Matt Vinc, but bounced firmly off the crossbar and harmlessly away.
“The game is about inches,” Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley said. “That’s the way it’s always been.”
Still, it looked for a while like Resetarits’ goal just might stand up. Then Joel McCready tallied with 2:22 left in regulation to tie it at 1-1. The teams played out the rest of the 10 minutes without scoring, with every shot or turnover getting some sort of reaction from the crowd that featured plenty of Bandits fans who made the trip.
If the emotion could go up a level from there, it did when the contest entered sudden-death overtime. Someone had to be the hero, and Vitarelli – who scored the night’s first goal in the regulation game and has frequently had big games against Buffalo – answered the bell.
“A lane opened up,” he said. “I took a step to the net and caught the corner.”
The goal ended a long night for both teams. The evening had started with one of the most intense beginnings in memory, as both teams battled for every square inch of real estate.
Fittingly, the score was tied at 4-4 after 15 minutes.
However, the Bandits slipped in the second period and the Knighthawks capitalized. They went on a 6-1 run to take the 10-5 lead at the half and grab control of the contest.
“We’ve got to be able to finish,” Resetarits said. “The second period was crucial. We got away from the way we had been playing.”
“The first game went south for them when we had a run like that,” Cordingley added. “You take away the fourth quarter of the first game and the second quarter of this one, and there wasn’t much difference.”
The teams seemed to run in place for much of the second half. Buffalo’s best player on offense was Dhane Smith, who had three goals and three assists and who also was frequently sent out on defense as well.
“Dhane really picked us up. That’s a really good thing for him,” Cordingley said. “He stepped up his game. The ball was dropping for him, and he worked really hard.”
Cody Jamieson had three goals and five assists to lead the Knighthawks, while Johnny Powless added three goals. The result was more or less set by the fourth quarter, and both teams seemed to step off the gas in the final minutes to save energy.
“After the second television timeout, I think everyone was thinking of the mini-game and sat back a bit,” Cordingley said. “That’s the first time I’ve done that. It was pretty strange.”
After the teams took a couple of minutes off, it was back to work for those final 11 minutes and 56 seconds.
The Bandits did salvage some self-respect in the playoffs this year. Few had expected much of them after they finished with eight straight losses. But their two earlier wins in the postseason followed by Saturday’s close call gives the team a building block for next year.
“We could have easily lost to Toronto in the first round and had to rebuild again,” John Tavares said.
“This way, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think we have a good nucleus here. We just need a tweak here, a tweak there. We don’t need to make 10 changes. The good teams only make two or three changes each year.”