Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The 2002-03 Season

In the summer of 2002, the Washington Power was headed West. The group that owned the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets was looking for something to fill dates in their building, and indoor lacrosse was a nice fit.

However, Denver wasn't a good fit for Darris Kilgour, the coach of the Power. He had spent his lacrosse career in the Northeast, playing for Buffalo, Rochester and Albany before starting his coaching career in Washington. He was 19-14 in two years with the Power.

The Buffalo Bandits had their own problems at that point. The franchise was stuck in mediocrity, and attendance was down by about 50 percent from their best days in Memorial Auditorium. How could the Bandits remind people of better times and make a move to get back to that level of excellence?

Exactly right. On July 30, 2002, the Bandits introduced Kilgour as their new head coach.

"I've been waiting for this since the day I retired," said the 31-year-old Kilgour. "Luckily for me, I didn't have to wait too long."

It was quite an offseason for the Bandits, starting at the top. A long drama climaxed only days before the Kilgour hiring when owner John Rigas, who also owned the Sabres, was arrested for securities fraud. There was some question about what would happen to the Bandits, but they continued to operate under the control of the National Hockey League while the NHL searched for a new owner for the Sabres.

Former Bandit Jason Luke was acquitted of a criminal charge of murdering his father in am April court decision. Luke had admitted to the stabbing of his father in 2000, but claimed he was suffering from a mental disorder. The court agreed. Luke played for the Bandits from 1996-98, but suffered a very serious knee injury. He tried a comeback for Syracuse in 1999, but a broken kneecap ended those hopes. Luke became lost without lacrosse, and he was diagnosed with "schizophrenia-form psychosis and continuous auditory hallucinations" according to an Ontario psychiatrist.

The Bandits' roster seemed to be in constant flux throughout the summer and fall. Remember Roy Colsey, who came in the big midseason deal earlier in 2002? Gone. He and a second-round pick went to the New Jersey Storm for forward Kerry Susheski, defenseman Jordan Guindon, and a first-round draft pick (fifth overall).

When Montreal suspended operations for a year -- never a good sign, and it wasn't in this case either -- the NLL staged a dispersal draft. Buffalo picked up Aime Caines and Kelly Sullivan.

Care for some trades? Buffalo made bunches of them:

* Buffalo sent a first (number five overall) and second rounder to New York for Jon Donnelly, Matt Alexander, and a first-round choice (number seven).

* The Bandits dealt Marc Landriault, Kevin Howard, and a third-rounder to Ottawa for Jason Crosbie and Chris Konopliff.

* Finally, the Bandits acquired the third overall pick from Columbus for a first and third-rounder plus Pat Maddalena.

The Bandits no doubt spent training camp memorizing uniform numbers. They had an interesting distraction in a preseason game in HSBC Arena on December 7. New Jersey used a female goalie, Ginny Capicchioni, the second quarter. She stopped nine of 14 shots, including a John Tavares breakaway. Just before the season, the Bandits completed a trade that would have all sorts of repercussions down the road. They sent goalie Ken Montour to Columbus for Mark Steenhuis.

Once the games started in January (the November starting date for the league was history), the Bandits were ready. They opened at home with an 11-10 overtime win before only 5,713. Caines scored the game-winner in Kilgour's debut. That was followed by another home win against Columbus, this time by 20-6. The defense clamped down in a 10-4 win at New Jersey on Jan. 19. A 3-0 record? Not bad.

And it got better, although Toronto did hand the Bandits a 17-13 defeat. Buffalo ran off six wins in a row, and never scored fewer than 12 goals in any of the wins. The first of them was a 23-17 win over Calgary, with Tavares scoring seven goals. Tavares got five more, including number 400 of his career, a week later in a 19-16 win over Columbus. Buffalo even got revenge against Toronto in a 14-8 win.

"I don't care who we play or where we play because when we play like this we can beat anybody," Kilgour said. "And we all believe it."

Albany (with a shutout fourth quarter), New York and Rochester fell after that. More good news came during that streak. Tom Golisano purchased the Sabres and the Bandits, making sure the franchise wouldn't be going anywhere or folding in the near future. After the confusion of the Rigas family era, such a transaction was welcome.

The five-game win streak ended on March 15, as Philadelphia recorded a 15-12 win. A 6-3 fourth-quarter edge for the Wings was the difference. Buffalo went back to work, beating Ottawa twice to clinch a playoff spot before losing two out of three to end the season. The win came against New Jersey on April 5 and featured 30 shots in the second quarter, a team record. The loss to Calgary in the last game was costly, as Rochester beat Philadelphia to clinch the division and home field throughout the playoffs.

It added up to a 12-4 record. That was good for a tie for first in the Central Division with Rochester; the Bandits lost the title on a tiebreaker. Tavares lit up the stat sheet with 107 points and was a first-team all-star. Jonas Derks had 33 goals, Jason Crosbie had 25 and Mike Accursi added 35. Steenhuis displayed some potential with 16 goals. In goal, Steve Dietrich was immense with an 11-3 record, setting a team one-season record for wins with 11 and shots faced with 894.

Next stop: the playoffs for the first time in three years. Dietrich was suffering from postconcussion syndrome from an injury from the regular season finale and missed the playoffs, and that hurt. The Bandits had few problems with Calgary in the first round, winning on April 19 by 16-9. Tavares had four goals. But in the semifinals on April 26, Rochester had just enough to beat Buffalo, 16-13, in the semifinals, as Tavares was held to one goal.

"I just couldn't stop the ball in the first half, it's as simple as that," said backup goalie Corey Quinn, who made just one regular-season start. "When you score nine goals in the first half against Rochester you should be winning. I'm here to stop the ball in case the defense breaks down and our guys do get beat. I shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this loss."

It had been a breathless year, and an exciting one. Kilgour was named coach of the year for his work, while Kurt Silcott was named general manager of the year.

"We brought in a lot of new guys and it all worked out well," said Kilgour. "I'm extremely happy with the season as a whole."

The Bandits were headed in the proper direction.

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