Monday, May 18, 2009

The 2005-06 Season

The offseason got off to a sad beginning for the Buffalo Bandits and fans of indoor lacrosse everywhere. Les Bartley, who coached the Bandits to three championships before moving to the Ontario franchise, lost his fight with cancer at the age of 51. Bartley won four championships for the Toronto Rock (1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003), meaning that he had won seven titles in 10 years. Bartley had to step down from his post in the fall of 2003, but still worked with the league. Bartley's death came a day after Toronto defeated Arizona for the 2005 championship.

"Les was a great coach and great person and it's tough to know he's gone," Bandits forward John Tavares said. "He wasn't on the bench (for the last two years), so we kind of got used to him not being there. But now he's gone completely. Not just him, but his wife (Gloria), his kids (Matt and Laura).

"So that whole family has kind of been taken away from the game. When I think of the Toronto Rock, I definitely think of Les Bartley. He's going to be deeply missed by so many people."

May was a busy month for the National Lacrosse League. Edmonton came into the league on May 5, technically taking over the dormant Ottawa franchise. Portland became team number 12 a week later. But the growth stopped in June, as Anaheim gave up after two years in Anaheim.

In July, the Bandits lost Mike Hominuck as the first pick of the expansion draft to Portland; Tom Montour followed in the second round. Then came the Bandits' usual big trades. Cory Bomberry, taken by Edmonton in the expansion draft, came to Buffalo for a third-round pick. Then Lindsay Plunkett and Troy Bonterre were acquired from Arizona for Jason Crosie and a first-round pick in the dispersal draft. The Bandits also flip-flopped first-round picks in the transaction.

When the entry draft arrived on August 29, the Bandits took Jeff Shatler in the first round, and Roger Vyse with the first pick in the second round. Ian Lloyd and Kyle Schmelze came in later rounds, making it one of the deepest drafts in Bandits' history.

Buffalo also made a change in its front office. Kurt Silcott left the team's post as general manager after seven years to take the same job in Calgary, and coach Darris Kilgour added the GM's duties.

"I knew the day would come that I'd finally be leaving Buffalo," said Silcott. "I saw Bob Hamley make his move, I watched (Colorado GM) Steve Govett go (from Washington to Denver) and I knew that someday, going to a new city and a new lifestyle, would be right for me."

With that out of the way, the Bandits were off on another solid season. They couldn't have asked for a better start. Buffalo had a home-and-home series with Toronto, and won both ends, 13-11 and 13-10. In the first game, Mark Steenhuis had five goals and four assists.

The momentum was stopped by an 11-10 overtime loss in Rochester -- "It's on all of us tonight, myself included, for taking dumb penalties," said Bandits captain Rich Kilgour -- and the team drifted for the next several weeks. Buffalo lost four of six games in all, placing its record at 4-4 at the midpoint of the season.

One of the losses spoiled a momentus moment. Tavares broke Gary Gait's record for career points by getting No. 1,092. It came as an assist on a second-period goal by Steenhuis.

"It's something I can look back on when I'm retired and be proud of and being spoken in the same breath as Gary Gait," Tavares said. "Gary Gait's the all-time best player in the league, the all-time best player in lacrosse ever. To be compared to Gary, it's a great accomplishment for myself."

By the way, Tavares didn't have time to celebrate the win. He had to drive back to Toronto quickly, as his wife gave birth to a son the next day.

After that skid, an overtime win over Rochester by a 14-13 score -- Kim Squire, a free-agent signee, had the game-winner -- turned the season around. Squire was certainly stunned to score.

"I think they must have thought, 'This dude, he's washed up,' " said Squire, whose goal gave Buffalo its only lead of the night. "They kept backing up and backing up, giving me a lot of room. All of a sudden there was all this room so I moved in, had the shot and took advantage of it."

Buffalo beat Minnesota and Rochester to take control of the division. Steenhuis tied a team record in the win over the Knighthawks with seven goals, including six on his first six shots.

"I felt I owed it to the guys on the team because I hadn't been playing up to my potential," said Steenhuis.

Wins over San Jose, Arizona, Colorado and Philadelphia followed down the stretch. The burst wrapped up the division title and the number one seed in the playoffs. Dan Teat had 34 points in his last seven games at that point after scoring 17 in the first eight.

"That's about the same time our offense sat down together and decided we were going to step it up," said Dan Teat. "[The first eight games] I was still getting the chances so I was more upbeat than if I hadn't been getting them."

The win turned the season finale, a loss to Philadelphia, into a meaningless result. An 11-5 record was two games better than Rochester's 9-7 mark.

Tavares was down to "only" 85 points and "only" made second-team All-Pro, but Mark Steenhuis led the team in goals with 34. Teat chipped in 27 goals, and Cory Bomberry had 21. Steve Dietrich had another fine season in goal, going 10-4 with a GAA of 9.97 as he was named goaltender of the year. Later, he became the first goalie in league history to be named Most Valuable Player.

"He's the backbone of our defense," said Bandits assistant coach Troy Cordingley, who commands a defense that led the league and set a franchise record with a 10.43 goals against average. "When things do break down, Chugger [Dietrich] is always there to stuff it up."

The playoffs started on April 23, and the Bandits had a major scare in the opener. Buffalo was tied with Minnesota, 10-10, with a little more than three minutes left when Steenhuis scored. That one held up for the 11-10 win.

"You have to give those guys credit," said Steenhuis, who had two goals and an assist, about Minnesota. "There was absolutely no quit in them. They just kept coming and coming and coming."

Next up was Rochester, six days later. The Knighthawks had never been easy for the Bandits traditionally, but Buffalo handled them, 15-10, this time.

Dietrich played his best game of the season for Buffalo, stopping 46 of 56 shots. Cory Bomberry, Delby Powless and rookie Roger Vyse, all products of the Six Nations Chiefs program, gave the Bandits' offense a boost by combining for five goals and 17 assists.

"We have played together a long time," said Bomberry, who had two goals and seven assists, and is Vyse's uncle. "We know each other's tendencies and we were really moving the ball well."

That set up the championship game between Buffalo and Colorado on May 13. For the first time since 1997, the final would be in Buffalo. And the Bandits had big hopes of winning their first championship since 1996.

Instead, Buffalo picked the exact wrong time to play a stinker of a game. A crowd of 16,104 watched in disbelief as the Bandits were never in the game, losing to the Mammoth, 16-9. Colorado led by 7-2 at the half and led by 9-2 early in the third quarter. Buffalo rallied a bit, but couldn't come close to making it interesting.

"We just dug too big a hole," said Bandits defenseman and assistant captain Kyle Couling. "We tried to climb out but you just can't afford to take a quarter off in a championship game."

Only Troy Bonterre had more than one goal for Buffalo, and he had never scored before in his five-year career. John Tavares popped a hamstring muscle in the first half and wasn't a factor. Bandits fans spent the end of the game cheering for the Sabres long-distance during the hockey team's playoff game in Ottawa.

"It felt like a hammer," said Bandits captain Rich Kilgour. "We could do no right. Maybe we were just trying too hard, maybe everyone was trying to be a hero."

That fourth title was getting more elusive by the year.

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