A team that is coming off a championship season doesn't have much need to change the formula. So the Buffalo Bandits came close to standing relatively still entering the 2009 season.
The comings and goings of franchises, as usual, did have an effect on the roster. Arizona opted to go out of business rather than play in 2009. Its players, who had been subject to one dispersal draft before the 2008 season only to have their rights revert after the season, went through another such draft in June. The Bandits took Greg Hinman. In July, the Bandits lost Kyle Laverty to Boston in the expansion draft.
Then in mid-December, Chicago announced it would not be ready to play in the 2009 season. Calgary took Tom Montour from the Shamrox in the dispersal draft, and then quickly sent him to the Bandits for a 2010 first-round draft choice. "I found out the team was folding when I got an e-mail two days before it was announced. It was pretty crazy," Montour said. Buffalo grabbed Cody Jacobs in the expansion draft.
Once the season got going, the Bandits looks as if they were going to blow the league down. They beat Philadelphia, 15-11, on banner-raising night at home before 18,690. Mark Steenhuis had four goals and four assists. Here's what the raising looked like from the stands:
The pregame ceremony also included a well-deserved tribute to Buffalo News writer Tom Borrelli, who died in a freak accident while covering a high school football game in November. Outside of the Kilgour brothers and John Tavares, Borrelli may have done more than anyone in Western New York to grow the sport. His excellent work in covering the team from 1992 to 2008 gave the team legitimacy in the community.
"Tom is going to be tremendously missed by this organization, and by me personally and my brother personally," Darris Kilgour said.
A week later, a trip to Toronto proved Buffalo could win a defensive struggle, taking an 8-6 game. Tavares and Steenhuis scored in the fourth quarter to break a 6-6 tie.
On January 16, Rochester came to town without its starting goalie, Pat O'Toole. By the second half, the Knighthawks couldn't keep up with the Bandits and essentially stopped trying to do so. The Bandits recorded a 23-6 victory that wasn't as close if the store indicates. Steenhuis had eight goals and five assists, while Roger Vyse had five goasl. The Bandits scored three short-handed goals within eight minutes.
"If they aren't going to play, it's on them," Kilgour said. "We're not running up the score at all. If they don't want 23 goals on them, they have to show a little effort."
The Bandits hit the road on a three-game trip from there. They beat Minnesota, 10-9, and Edmonton, 13-8. They lost in Philadelphia, 13-11, to spoil thoughts of an undefeated season.
Still, Buffalo roared through the end of the first half of the season. The Bandits thumped Toronto, 25-10, on Feb. 14. Steenhuis set league records with 13 assists and 17 points.
"He's got a great shot and he's strong on his feet. That's a good start," said Roger Vyse, who had six goals, about Steenhuis. "He uses the rest of us really well out there, and it's good when we can help him."
Six days later in Toronto, Buffalo spotted the Rock a big lead, and came charging back in the second half. Steenhuis tied the game with 38 seconds left in regulation, scored the game-winning goal 46 seconds into overtime for a 17-16 win. The Bandits were 7-1 at the midway point, and looked like the class of the league. They were even getting Pat McCready back from a major shoulder injury that cost him the first half of the season.
But there was one catch, even if no one really knew it yet. They hadn't played anybody. Only one game in the first half was against a 2009 playoff team, and Rochester was not at full strength.
The second half of the season started with a home against Minnesota, and the Bandits blew a lead and dropped a 16-15 decision. "It was awful -- a disappointing loss," Tavares said. A week later after the All-Star break, Buffalo lost a 15-14 overtime decision in Rochester.
The Bandits played well in a 14-4 win over Portland at home, but lost, 11-9, to New York. "They outgoaltended us," Darris Kilgour said about the Titans. "I thought we outplayed them, outshot them (59-40). I thought Mikey [Thompson] let in some easy ones. I'm not too upset. I think if we had shot better, we'd have won the game."
They rebounded with a pair of wins, one at Boston and another against Rochester on a brilliant performance by goalie Ken Montour (52 saves).
"My defense was great in front of me," Montour said. "They forced them to shoot from way outside. I've been struggling with rebounds lately, and the defense picked me up."
But Buffalo lost two straight to finish the regular season. The final game against the Blazers was particularly disheartening. Boston came back from a 10-5 deficit in the third quarter to win, 13-12, in overtime. The loss cost the Bandits first place in the East, losing that edge to New York in a tiebreaker.
"I'm very, very, very, very disappointed the way we played -- the amount of energy we put out. It was disappointing to say the least," Kilgour said.
Steenhuis and Tavares tied for the league lead in goals with 51, and Ken Montour had the league's lowest goals-against average (9.57). Montour and Billy Dee Smith were named to the first team all-pro squad, while Steenhuis and Tavares were second-teamers. The team also set a league attendance record, averaging more than 17,000 in each of the eight home games.
Buffalo had its hands full in the first-round playoff game at home with Boston, but the Bandits figured out a way to take an 11-8 decision. Tavares and Steenhuis took control in the fourth quarter to break open a tight end. Here are the highlights:
That set up another East final against New York, and this one would not be in the friendly confines of HSBC Arena. In fact, the game was set for the Continental Arena in Newark, N.J., where the Titans had played half of their 2009 games. Interest was not at a fever pitch; fans could simply say "Newark" at the box office the night of the game and get a general admission ticket (and the whole building was general admission) for $5. Bandits fans made the drive in large numbers, and they may have outnumbered their Titans' counterparts. They certainly outshouted them before the game.
What those fans saw was a stinker of a contest, particularly from the Bandits' standpoint. Very little happened in the first half, prompting one media member to ask, "Aren't the games usually better than this?"
However, the game slowly turned in New York's direction. Casey Powell had two goals and five assists for the Titans, who went on to a 9-3 win. It was a Buffalo team record for fewest goals in a playoff game, and just missed a league record. Steenhuis and Tavares were blanked for only the second time in 2009.
"You're not going to win when you score only three goals," Kilgour said.
After the game, the 40-year-old Tavares was talking about retirement, probably out of frustration, coach/general manager Kilgour was wondering if it was time to give up one of his jobs, Rich Kilgour was ready to retire and become a college coach, and no one was speaking of standing pat in the coming offseason.
If the Buffalo Bandits were going to figure out a way to get to the top of the National Lacrosse League standings, some new faces were needed. Coach Darris Kilgour thought he knew who one of them was.
Therefore, he completed a three-way trade in July of 2007 that changed the face of his team. The object of Buffalo's affections was forward Sean Greenhalgh, a top scorer. Calgary sent defenseman Taylor Wray to Philadelphia, and a first- (2007) and second-round (2008) draft pick to Buffalo. The Bandits sent goalie Steve Dietrich and All-Star defenseman Kyle Couling to Calgary, and forward Jason Crosbie and other considerations to Philadelphia. Greenhalgh went to Buffalo from Philadelphia, while the Wings sent Ian Llord to Calgary.
Giving up Dietrich, a proven top goalie, was a gamble, but he had battled injury problems and Mike Thompson was thought to be ready to take the next step up. Greenhalgh had led the Wings in scoring in the previous two seasons.
"That group had been together four or five years and we had a couple kicks at the can but didn't get it done," captain Rich Kilgour said. "It's the same in any sport. If you're not getting better you're geting worse."
The Bandits suffered through another death of a part of their past that same month. Bob "Buff" McCready died at the age of 67. McCready was the team's first head coach, but was replaced, in a manner of speaking, by Les Bartley after the third game of the 1992 season. McCready is a member of the Ontario and Canadian Lacrosse Halls of Fame.
Concerning the league, the Boston Blazers jumped through all sorts of hoops in the offseason. The Blazers were introduced as an expansion team for 2008, and went through the process of an expansion draft on July 30. Buffalo lost forward Brenden Thenhaus to the Blazers in the procedure.
The Bandits went back to work on their roster at draft time in September. Llord turned up in a Buffalo uniform after a first- and second-round pick were sent to Calgary for Llord and a third-rounder. Minnesota sent the rights to Brandon Swamp for a 2008 first-round pick. Goalie Ken Montour came over from Philadelphia for a third-round choice. The Bandits then completed four other deals, all involving swaps of draft choices either in 2007 or 2008.
For a while in October, all of that work to revamp the roster looked like it would be for naught. The league and its players couldn't get together on a collective bargaining agreement, and the NLL even announced on Oct. 16 that it had cancelled the season. Nine days later, though, the season was saved through some after-the-last-second negotiations. Boston opted to wait another year to start operations, and Arizona decided to not play in 2008 either.
The dispersal draft of the players on the two teams was held on November 6. The Bandits rolled the dice by taking Arizona's Craig Conn, who had an injured knee and didn't figure to play much if at all in 2008. What's more, if Arizona returned to the league for 2009, Conn's rights would go right back to the Desert. Brian Croswell and Joe Smith joined the Bandits in later rounds.
Could we play lacrosse now? Most could. But Greenhalgh blew out his knee during a workout before Christmas, and would miss the entire 2008 season.
"That was pretty disappointing, to say the least," Kilgour said. "He's somebody I had really coveted. I'd made a move to go get him and he'd looked excellent. And now it's not going to work out."
That season began on January 11, as the Bandits played the Rochester Knighthawks on consecutive nights. Buffalo opened with a 12-9 loss, and Kilgour split the goaltending duties between Ken Montour and Mike Thompson. We'd see plenty of that in the season to come.
"We were disorganized, we had bad passing and the power play was horrible," John Tavares said about the game.
The Bandits rebounded the next night to win in Rochester to snap the Knighthawks' 16-game winning streak. However, they got off to another relatively slow start -- something that had haunted them in the past two seasons. One of the few early highlights came when Tavares scored his 597th career goal against New York, breaking Gary Gait's league record.
"He scores quality and quantity," said Rich Kilgour, a teammate from Day One. "Obviously he's the greatest of all time, there's no debating that. He's the best all-around lacrosse player that has ever strapped it up in this league. He deserves it."
Buffalo dropped overtime decisions in Philadelphia on January 26 and in New York on February 10. That made it 10 losses in 11 games with extra time, all away from home. When the Bandits lost in Toronto on February 15, they were 3-4 and in a bit of trouble in the divisional race. Injuries were part of the problem. Brett Bucktooth was in the midst of missing most of the regular season with a hip injury, while Roger Vyse and Kevin Dostie missed a few games as well.
But Buffalo got better from that point on. The Bandits got a big 16-14 win from undefeated Minnesota on February 16, as Cory Bomberry and Mark Steenhuis scored in the final three minutes.
"Given the circumstances, that was an absolutely huge win that we had to have against a really good team playing at its best," Darris Kilgour said.
The game started a four-game win streak, including victories over Chicago, undefeated Philadelphia and Minnesota again. That put the team's record at 7-4. It hit a small bump in the road with losses to Toronto and Rochester. In-between the two losses, the Bandits completed a major trade. They brought Mike Accursi back to Buffalo in exchange for Dan Teat, a second-rounder in 2008 and a first-rounder in 2009.
The 13-9 loss to Toronto on March 23 was a damaging one. After splitting games with Colorado and Rochester, Buffalo faced two crucial games at the end of the season just to qualify for the postseason at least. The Bandits came through, beat Chicago (Accursi with four first-half goals) and Portland to finish at 10-6. Against the LumberJax, Tavares had three straight goals to break the game open.
"He's a legend, the ageless wonder," Steenhuis said. "It's amazing for us to see it and be a part of it."
That was a popular record, as three other teams in the division also ended at 10-6. When the accountants were done going over the tiebreakers, Buffalo had won the East and thus the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. No team in the West was better than 9-7.
Individually, Tavares finished with 87 points and Mark Steenhuis had 75. Both were named to the first all-pro team, and Steenhuis was picked as transition player of the year. Dostie was third on the team in goals with 22, while Delby Powless and Cory Bomberry had 55 points each. Thompson had a better won-loss record than Montour (5-1 to 4-5), but Montour had the better goals-against average (10.23 to 11.81).
The Bandits started the playoffs at home against Philadelphia on May 2. Accursi had four goals while Thompson was sharp in the net in a 14-12 victory. The Bandits scored three straight goals in the fourth quarter to gain breathing room.
"In the fourth quarter I think the boys just said, 'You know what, this is our season.' It really hit us in the face that this could be our last game if we don't straighten it out and get to work," Darris Kilgour said.
In the East final against New York on May 10, Steenhuis took over. He had seven goals, while Bucktooth and Dostie had three each and Tavares had two goals and 10 assists. That was more than enough in a 19-12 win.
"It was magical just watching [Steenhuis} shoot the ball so effortlessly," Bucktooth said. "When a guy is hot like that, just get him the ball and let him take care of business."
Here is a highlight from that game:
Over in the West, Portland had overcome a poor regular season and stunned everyone by advancing to the May 17 final. You'd think the Bandits would have an easy time with a team that had gone 6-10 in the regular season. But the LumberJax proved to be a handful.
The game went back and forth throughout the night, in part because the Bandits lost Chris White to a injury early in the contest. Steenhuis had a huge game with five goals, and Dostie added three more. Buffalo had the lead, 14-13, in the final seconds when Thompson made one last huge save on Peter Jacobs from 15 feet away. The Bandits ran out the rest of the clock and started to celebrate their fourth championship and their first since 1996.
"They had a great opportunity and Mike stopped it," said Darris Kilgour. "That's the one everybody will remember but Mikey made just so many big saves for us all night long."
Here's the way the final seconds looked:
The Bandits had knocked on the door for a long time. Finally, they barged in.
(Photo of trophy presentation courtesy of bandits.com)
The Buffalo Bandits obviously didn't need to change too much as the 2007 season approached. No one suggested that it was time to tear down the walls; a simple rearranging of the furniture would be fine.
That started in June when A.J. Shannon was sent to Edmonton. Buffalo received a first-round draft pick for 2006, the third overall. The Rush picked up a first-rounder in 2007. The Bandits also acquired Kevin Dostie from Calgary for former first-rounder Jeff Shattler and a second-round pick in 2007.
Meanwhile, the National Lacrosse League's expansion plans for 2007 were no secret. As early as February, it was reported that Chicago and New York were coming to the league. The Chicago team eventually would be known as the Shamrox. New York didn't have a name in July when the expansion draft was held for the two teams. Buffalo lost Bryan Kazarian and Jon Harasym to Chicago.
In September, Buffalo took time out to honor two of its own. The League announced its selections for its Hall of Fame. Darris Kilgour, the coach and general manager of the Bandits, wasn't a big surprise, having been around the NLL in one capacity for another since Day One.
"I had a relatively short career so I really didn't think I had that great a chance," Kilgour said. "Plus a lot of my career was spent in the penalty box so I didn't know how that would figure into it."
Bufflao News' lacrosse writer Tom Borrelli was also included on the list. Borrelli had covered the team since 1993. In 2005, the league had named its writer of the year award after him. The pair was honored in Philadelphia before a Bandits-Wings game in February.
In September's draft, San Jose had the first two picks and chose Ryna Benesch and Kyle Sorensen. The Bandits went third and picked Brett Bucktooth of Syracuse University, who would fit in quickly. Buffalo made one other addition for the season, making original coach Bob "Buff" McCready its goaltending coach.
The games started on December 30, when the Bandits lost to Portland, 11-10 in overtime. It was part of a slow start for Buffalo, perhaps because goalie Steve Dietrich was out with a knee injury. Mike Thompson, who had been signed as a free agent and who hadn't played in the NLL since 2001, started the first five games -- including the home opener that drew a sellout of 18,690 on Jan. 12. One of the highlights of the early going came when John Tavares had a career-best 13 points (10 assists) in a 22-13 win over Minnesota.
Dietrich finally saw action on Feb. 2, a home loss to Toronto, in a game that left Buffalo's Tavares fuming.
"We were already short and they were calling very mediocre penalties," said Tavares, who had two goals and three assists. "It's very frustrating playing catch-up all night. It's demoralizing. I feel sorry for the 13,000 fans that were here. Every time we touched somebody we got a penalty. It got to be ridiculous."
Dietrich started the next night in Toronto and lost that one. That put the Bandits' record at 2-4, but the team came around after that.
"These last two games were more frustrating than even last year's championship," said Kilgour, referring to last May's penalty-filled 16-9 loss to Colorado. "We gave up the lead with absolutely selfish penalties over and over in the fourth quarter and we deserved every one of them. This weekend was absolutely unacceptable. I'm disgusted with my team right now."
Rebounding smartly, Buffalo ran off eight straight wins to move to 10-4. It was the second-longest win streak in team history. The Bandits even added some reinforcements along the way by giving up a first-round pick to Toronto for Phil Sanderson. The hot streak put the Bandits solidly in playoff position, with a chance to tie for the division in a home-and-home series with Rochester to close the regular season.
"When were at 2-4 we realized if we wanted any chance for first we were basically going to have to win out," said Kyle Laverty, one of the Bandits' best backliners. "We're building every game, getting better. We're on a roll at the right time."
That roll came to an end against Rochester. The Knighthawks took a 14-10 win in the opener of the series in Buffalo. Dietrich hurt his knee in that game.
"My knee just buckled on me, they don't know what's wrong with it," said Dietrich. "They don't think it's anything structural. The kneecap may have dislocated and then popped itself back into place. There's not a lot of pain right now, so that's a good sign."
The next night at home with nothing at stake they had an easier time, winning by 14-8. Rochester finished 14-2, the best record in the league, while the Bandits were 10-6.
Tavares was picked for his 15th straight All-Pro team after a 103-point season, Dostie was second on the team in goals with 29. Bucktooth chipped in with 26 points.
Buffalo drew Minnesota in the first-round playoff game on April 22. John Tavares had three goals and was the game MVP as the Bandits advanced with a 14-8 victory. Jason Crosbie had the killer goal of the night that put Buffalo up, 12-8.
"You don't really plan it, that stuff just kind of happens when you take a chance," said Crosbie. "I shoot a lot of underhanded stuff. I was looking for something knee-high, it just went under his stick. When I saw that red [light] go off, I was really pumped. That was probably a pretty big goal."
Meanwhile, goalie Thompson was sharp in the nets as a sub for the injured Dietrich.
"Throughout the season our confidence has spilled out onto me," said Thompson, who made 38 saves and blanked the Swarm the entire second half. "There wasn't any problem with my confidence. A couple of [the first four scores] were squeakers that I got a piece of. I just tried to calm myself down a little bit, it being my first playoff game. In the second half, everybody settled down."
Rochester and its 13-game win streak were waiting in the semifinal on April 27. Still, Buffalo seemed to have things in control in the fourth quarter as it had a three-goal lead in the fourth quarter.
Oops. The Knighthawks rallied for a 14-13 overtime win. Mike Accursi was the MVP for Rochester, while John Grant had the game-winning goal 26 seconds into the extra session. He beat Thompson, who had a remarkable 52 saves.
"Throughout the game he [Grant] had a tendency to go the other way," said Thompson, who allowed only two total goals in the middle quarters when the Bandits forged their lead. "He came like a twister. He looks like he's shooting short [side] but he goes long to the far side. I thought I had it. It pinched between the ground and my leg but it squeezed through there. I didn't even see it go in."
The Knighthawks were supposed to host the championship game, but the circus was in town ... literally. The NLL Board of Governors voted to move the game to Arizona, and the unfazed Knighthawks beat Arizona there, 13-11, to win the title.
The crowds in Buffalo had returned, as every game attracted at least 12,000 fans and the average attendance was a shade over 15,000. Now the Bandits had to find away to reward that loyalty.
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.
There's nothing like a nice little trade before the start of the season to shake up the roster a bit.
Well, in the case of the Buffalo Bandits, it wasn't so little.
The story actually begins in 2004. That's when Minnesota was admitted to the league as an expansion team. It became known as the Swarm.
On October 19, the Swarm made its selections in the expansion draft. Dan Teat was considered the biggest name to come to Minnesota. He was taken from San Jose.
Then came the trade three days later. The Bandits acquired Teat, Tyler Francey, the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, and a third-rounder in 2004 for Mike Accursi, Kerri Susheski, a first-round pick in 2004 and a first round pick in 2005. Teat was coming off a 34-goal season and wanted to be closer to his Toronto home, so the deal made sense from that standpoint.
"(The trade) was something I'd hoped for pretty much throughout the summer. For location, it was better all-around for me and my family," said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Teat. "Toward the end of the season, it got pretty tough. I have a 7-year-old and I started missing his hockey tournaments and stuff. The wear and tear of three days away and three hours behind catches up to you. They treated us well in San Jose, but still it was tiring."
The number one pick in the draft was quite a prize as well. The Bandits used it on Delby Powless, a star at Rutgers University.
"He's a proven goal scorer who plays tough, physical lacrosse," Bandits general manager Kurt Silcott said. "We expect him to step right in and make an immediate impact on our team.
Accursi, by the way, was then traded to Rochester around the draft. Otherwise, roster changes were few as Teat figured to join John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis and A.J. Shannon as the team's top scorers. Vancouver folded up its shop in December, with the Bandits grabbing Curt Malawsky in the dispersal draft. Malawsky was dealt in January to San Jose for a second-round pick.
If nothing else, the run to the championship game the previous season had increased enthusiasm for the team. That was reflected by the 11,067 who showed up for opening night against Toronto. It was the first five-figure home opener since 1999, and the biggest crowd of any type since 1998. Too bad for them that they saw the Bandits lose to the Rock, 15-13.
"We just lost our heads in the third quarter," said Buffalo's Jason Crosbie, who had three assists. "We came in at half thinking that we were playing good, but then we got one penalty, then another, then got frustrated. The offensive guys didn't score in the second half and that's on us. ... We need to get our heads back."
The Bandits split a road trip that saw them beat Minnesota in the Swarm's first-ever home game. A snowstorm kept the crowd to under 6,000. The next night, the Bandits lost in Colorado. From there, the team went off on a hot streak that put Buffalo in contention in the East. The Bandits swept a home-and-home series with Philadelphia on Jan. 28-29, followed by wins over Anaheim (featuring Taveres' 500th career assist) and Rochester (Tavares' 1,000th career point).
A loss to Philadelphia came before a win over Toronto that put the Bandits back in first in the East. "We were able to get the ball out in the open floor and we did some damage with it," said Steenhuis, who added three assists and a team-high 15 loose balls. "Then we were able to shut the door when we had to." Back-to-back wins over Minnesota followed. Tavares had three goals in the opener, and he went past 500 goals in the second game in the Twin Cities.
"He [Tavares] makes everybody around him better and makes guys want to work harder," said Teat. "That's all there is to it. That's why he's the best player in the game."
The Bandits were slightly derailed by an overtime loss to the Knighthawks. That set up a big game for control of the division against Toronto, and the Rock won it, 12-8. Buffalo only scored two goals in the second half on Rock goalie Bob Watson.
"Every year we go through this," said coach Darris Kilgour, whose team lost its final four regular-season games last season. "We come out strong, then start patting each other on the back but forget about everything that got us to where we're at. I hope it doesn't take a five-game slide with us just slipping into the playoffs to realize it."
The Bandits did run the table at the end of the season, finishing with a three-game win streak. Buffalo beat Rochester, Calgary to wrap up a home playoff game, and San Jose to finish 11-5.
Tavares had another great season with 102 points, Teat and Steenhuis finished with 65 and 62 points respectively, and Powless had a good rookie year with 20 goals and 24 assists. Tavares made the All-Pro team, and Steve Dietrich was goaltender of the year in the NLL -- earning him his first first-team All-Pro honor. The defense was much improved, holding opponents to an average of 10.5 goals per game in the final six regular-season contests.
"We had some big changes defensively, but all the new guys who came in learned our system and played amazingly well," said defenseman Kyle Couling, who made his second straight All-Star Game appearance. "This defense is going to be around for quite awhile and in good shape for several years."
The Bandits finished in second place in their division, a game behind Toronto and a game ahead of Rochester. That led to a first-round playoff game at home against the Knighthawks on April 23. Despite five goals from Steenhuis, the Bandits' playoff run was one-and-done after a 19-14 loss. It was the team's first first-round exit since 2000. Accursi had seven goals for the Knighthawks.
"Everybody in this room had their reasons to be up for this game," said Accursi, who enjoyed beating his ex-team. "For me it was a no-brainer. I wanted to prove to them that they lost a talent. I put my heart and soul into that team for five years and to have them trade me away basically for draft choices, well it was their decision. I lived with it. But I felt I deserved a little more, that's for sure."
"I picked a bad time to have the worst half of my life. It's going to be a long summer," Dietrich said. "This is going to haunt me until we get to play them again next year. Until we get that shot, it's going to hurt. Defensively I thought we had our best season, and you don't want to leave it like this on such a sour note."
Buffalo had the second-best record in the league, but the best team in the league was Toronto. The Rock proved it with yet another championship, beating Arizona in the final. The season left the Bandits wondering what it had to do to get over the hump.
That was the motto of the National Lacrosse League in the summer of 2003. There were plenty of franchise shifts, all moving the league West. It started when Albany moved to San Jose, thus becoming the league's first-ever West Coast team. New Jersey followed about six weeks later in July by heading to Anaheim.
Then Ottawa asked for a one-year suspension, and its players were scattered around the league in a dispersal draft. Buffalo took Jason Clark with its first pick. In August, the New York Saints suspended operations for a year after surviving since Year One in 1987. Their players were declared free agents. Finally, Columbus moved to Phoenix. Suddenly, the NLL had six teams in its Western Division and only four teams -- Buffalo, Philadelphia, Rochester and Toronto -- in the East.
"Philadelphia, Rochester and Toronto have always given us a hard time," John Tavares said. "So on paper, things aren't looking too good for us. We're going to have to work hard to reverse that. ... But the one thing I really do like is that only one team from our division won't make the playoffs. That will increase all of our chances, from 1 in 6 in the West to 1 in 4 in our division."
Back in Buffalo, coach Darris Kilgour was rewarded with a two-year contract that had a team option for a third year. The team's big move of the offseason was a trade that involved a player that never suited up in a Buffalo uniform. The Bandits sent Casey Powell along with forwards Marc Landriault and Nate Watkins, plus a second-round pick in 2003 for forward Neal Powless, goaltender Derek General, a first-round pick in 2003 and a first-rounder in 2005.
"Since he's not playing in Buffalo, the greater good in me is actually happy to see him playing somewhere in the league," Bandits general manager Kurt Silcott said. "I think because Casey wasn't playing made a lot of U.S.-born players lean toward not playing in the league just for that reason."
Buffalo used its top pick in the draft on A.J. Shannon of the University of Virginia. In December, the Bandits sent defenseman Andy Ogilvie to Vancouver for a first-round draft pick.
The league's biggest drama came a few weeks before the start of the season, when the players and owners couldn't agree on a collective bargaining agreement. The two sides agreed to play under the terms of the old agreement for an extra year only days before the scheduled start of the season.
The Bandits started their season with a win over old rival Rochester, 12-11, in HSBC Arena. The game was marked by one of the oddest finishes in team history. Rochester's Derek Malawsky scored just as the game ended. The goal was disallowed, prompting some water bottles to be thrown from the Knighthawks' bench. A review of the tape was inconclusive; it was said the goal came .01 seconds either before or after the end of the game -- too close to call.
The controversial win was followed by two close losses -- to Philadelphia at home (ending a 10-game win streak in HSBC Arena) and Vancouver in overtime on the road.
Buffalo finally got into gear with a 16-12 win in Anaheim, as it sparked a six-game winning streak. That included wins over Rochester and Toronto at home and in Philadelphia. That left the team's record at 7-2 and the team in first place, impressive even though regular goalie Steve Dietrich missed the last two games of the streak. He had injured his knee in the Toronto game.
The Bandits came back to earth after that. Practically every game was close for the rest of the season, and Buffalo lost six out of seven of them. The skid started on Feb. 28 with a 13-12 overtime loss to Rochester in which the Bandits led for 57 minutes of play.
"I had no big plan, I just shot it, let her rip," said ex-Bandit Shawn Williams, who scored the winner for the Knighthawks.
Then followed a 13-11 loss to Toronto followed before the team's biggest home crowd in almost four years (10,599). The Bandits even tried a trade to shake things up, as they sent Ryan Powell and a draft choice to Anaheim for Roy Colsey -- back with the team after a short appearance in 2002. It didn't help as the team skidded to an 8-8 season after four straight losses. That record was barely good enough for a playoff spot.
The final loss came by a 17-15 score to Philadelphia, and it cost the Bandits a first-round playoff game. "It's disgusting and I'm appalled," said forward Mark Steenhuis. "Guys have to get their heads on straight for the playoffs."
The Bandits finished a game ahead of Rochester for the final postseason berth. No one could guess it at the start of the playoffs, but Buffalo was ready for a good-sized run.
It started, surprisingly, in Rochester, a graveyard for the Bandits at time, on April 17. Buffalo scored the game's last six goals and came away with a 13-9 win. Steenhuis showed a hint of things to come with five goals; Jonas Derks had four. Dietrich finally looked like he was recovered from his groin injury in a fine performance. It was Buffalo's first win in Rochester in seven years.
"I feel like [Masters champion] Phil Mickelson," said Bandits captain Rich Kilgour. "To win here and get that giant gorilla off our backs, it's just so sweet. Championships are more special, but this one ranks just a notch less."
Then in Toronto on April 25, Buffalo had surprisingly little trouble in knocking off the first-place Rock, 19-10. Dietrich was the game MVP, while Derks and Shannon had four goals each and Tavares had two goals and seven assists.
"We have a hungry bunch of dogs in here that are ready to fight and ready to win," said Bandits defenseman Kyle Couling. "Everybody had written us off after our slow finish [Buffalo lost six of its last seven in the regular season], said we were lucky with our 7-2 start, but we're for real. We proved it here today, we proved it in Rochester last week and now we need to prove it again in Calgary."
That set up the title game and one last road trip, albeit a long one. Buffalo traveled across the continent to play Calgary on May 7. Their road magic finally ran out, as the Roughnecks took the title, 14-11, before 19,289. The Bandits went from a 4-1 lead to an 11-6 deficit, and couldn't rally from there. Tavares and Mike Accursi had three goals each.
"[Calgary goalie Curtis Palidwor] made some really huge saves when we were within one, and that was the difference," said Darris Kilgour. "He stopped [Mark] Steenhuis on a fast break and [Jason] Clark on a really good opportunity. But it all boils down to the fact that we didn't play very good defense in the second and third quarters."
"You can always look back and second guess but we played the cards we were dealt," Rich Kilgour said of the late-season fade. "I could have made a lot of money betting whether we'd make it to championship game because at the end of the season, nobody was giving us a chance."
Tavares finished with 93 points to lead the team again, but there was plenty of balance on the score sheet. Accursi, Derks and Steenhuis all had at least 24 goals, while Clark and Crosbie were in double figures.
It was a rather schizophrenic season, but the playoff run did show that the Bandits were one of the elite teams in the league when healthy and playing well.
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 Buffalo Bandits had gone through three goaltenders in 2001. Head coach and ex-goalie Ted Sawicki wasn't going to go through that again.
To that end, the Bandits engineered a huge trade on May 18, 2001, that altered the look of the franchise. The target was Steve Dietrich, a veteran goalie who had spent the previous six seasons in Rochester and was twice a second-team All-Pro selection (1995-96). He came with Casey Powell, Rusty Kruger and Pat McCready. Headed down the Thruway were Derek Malawsky, Shawn Williams and D'Arcy Sweet.
Presto - two of the team's top three scorers were gone. But Dietrich would fill a spot in goal, and Powell had all sorts of potential even though he hadn't played the indoor game since 1999. Powell, a former All-American at Syracuse, had played outdoors in the summer of 2001.
"I can't remember a trade that involved this many players of this high caliber," Bandits General Manager Kurt Silcott said. Silcott had told Dietrich at the time of the deal, "This team is a goalie away and I just traded for him."
The dealing continued the next day. Buffalo sent Chris Prat and Derek Collins to Calgary for the first pick in the expansion draft, and used it to take Chris Langdale. The defenseman had spent the previous four seasons playing for Ontario/Toronto. Later Randy Mearns, who had started in Buffalo in 1993, returned in a trade with Calgary for Scott Self.
Calgary wasn't the only change in the league for 2001-02. The Vancouver Ravens joined the fold in April 2001, followed by the New Jersey Storm and Montreal Express in May. That left a unwieldy 13-team league that was split into three divisions. The team lost Rich Catton to Vancovuer, Phil Wetherup to Columbus, Andy Duden to Columbus and Peter Talmo to New Jersey in expansion drafts.
Was that enough change for one season? Perhaps. The league even started a month earlier than normal, as the Bandits opened at home against Washington on November 24. Dietrich was the winning goalie in a 17-15 win while McCready got the game-winning goal before 6,718. But Montreal edged the Bandits, 18-17, on Dec. 1.
That "win one, lose one" pattern didn't take long to developed. Buffalo beat New York and lost to Rochester, 22-11 in a game that Sawicki said, "That was one of the few times in my career where you just want to run and hide. On the bench I just felt like hiding." Derek Malawsky had 13 points for the Knighthawks.
Buffalo defeated Calgary in overtime but lost to Philadelphia. The Bandits downed Vancouver but lost in Montreal. Buffalo won against Columbus, but Sawicki had seen enough. He resigned his position on February 7 with the Bandits a half-game out of playoff berth. Assistant Frank Neilsen took over on an interim basis.
"Kurt [Silcott] felt he needed to make a change and I have no problem with stepping aside to take care of my baby," said Sawicki. "It was a mutual decision. I didn't feel like I was motivating the players. We felt like this was the thing to do."
After a loss to Albany, the Bandits were 5-5 and looked like a very mediocre team. They tried shaking up things with a pair of trades. In swap number one, Buffalo sent forward Jamie Taylor, goaltender Chris Levis and a 2002 first round draft pick to Columbus for goaltenders Ken Montour and Phil Wetherup and Columbus’ second-round pick in 2002. Wetherup then headed to New York, and he was joined by Chris Driscoll, Jason Clark, and Rob Kirkby and new members of the Saints. Coming to Buffalo were Roy Colsey, Brad Dairon and Jonas Derks. Colsey had tied John Tavares for the league lead in goals the previous season, and it was hoped he could provide some instant offense.
"It's not every day you get an opportunity to put a guy like that in your lineup," said General Manager Kurt Silcott about Colsey. "You have to do whatever it takes. We gave away a lot of talent but he's a superstar."
There was still time to get a little hot and make a playoff run. Buffalo won in Columbus and then beat Philadelphia to move two games above .500 for the first time this season. Tavares had five goals and five assists.
"We got into a zone and it seemed like we couldn't do anything wrong out there," said Bandits forward Mike Accursi, who scored a season-high seven points, including three goals. "Those guys just got tired, they got frustrated."
But that was the high-water mark. An overtime loss in Albany was a crusher, and it was followed by defeats at the hands of Toronto and Rochester.
The Bandits were 7-8 and out of the postseason again, even though six teams now made the playoffs. Sawicki gave the start in goal to Montour, his first, and he recorded a 23-22 win over Washington. Tavares padded his stats for the season with three goals and 10 assists for 13 points. That win at least got Buffalo up to 8-8 -- small consolation.
Tavares was on top of the team scoring list with 88 points. Colsey added 19 in six games for Buffalo, and Accursi was third on the team in scoring with 46. McCready set a team record by grabbing 173 loose balls. Powell had signed a contract withe Bandits but never reported.
Dietrich was 7-7 in goal, setting a team record by playing 845 minutes. "Steve had a great year for us, an MVP year," Neilsen said. "He played unbelieveably well, kept us in games when the defense did falter. ... Take away one stinker (a 22-11 loss to Rochester) and he was probably the best goalie in the league."
Banditland needed a jolt of energy at this point, and there was a man out there who was willing to try to provide it.
The Buffalo Bandits had the second overall pick in the draft in the summer of 2000. They picked someone with one of the greatest names in lacrosse. Ryan Powell had been a three-time All-American for Syracuse University. He and brothers and Mikey all wore #22 for Syracuse and helped maintain that dynasty.
"Ryan knew then I wanted to get him," said Bandits General Manager Kurt Silcott, "because that's when I traded with Syracuse [to obtain the Smash's first pick, in March 1999]. We made that trade to hopefully be in position to draft Ryan Powell when the time came. Now we're looking pretty good."
While stability was nice on the floor, it was nowhere to be found. Matt Disher stayed on the sidelines because of a dispute with Bandits management instead of reporting to training camp. Buffalo signed Phil Wetherup and Scott Komer as replacements.
Both players saw action in the net, but no one was able to claim the job for very long. It was an odd season, one which saw the Bandits have all sorts of trouble gathering much momentum at time.
The league saw some changes entering 2001. NLL commissioner John Livsey left the post to head up an expansion team, the Columbus Landsharks. Syracuse moved to Ottawa, and Pittsburgh packed up and headed to Washington.
Buffalo opened the season on December 30, its first-ever start before the New Year. The Bandits scrambled but beat Washington, 20-19. The coach of the Power was a familiar name -- Darris Kilgour. Then Buffalo came home for an unusual five-game homestand. Whose idea was it to play five of the seven games in a row at home?
The Bandits thumped Columbus, 23-10, in the home opener before 7,328. John Tavares had seven goals. That was followed by a 26-18 win over Philadelphia. Against the Wings, Derek Malawsky had four goals and 10 assists to tie a team record for points in a game.
"I wasn't preparing myself to score a lot of goals or get a lot of points, it just sort of happened with the flow," said Malawsky. "I got it going halfway through the first quarter and it seemed like we had it going all night."
But Toronto ended the unbeaten start with a 14-13, double-overtime decision that was a crusher. The Bandits led by two goals in the final minute, but gave up a goal in the final second.
"I don't think we ever recovered from that game psychologically," Sawicki admitted later.
The Bandits then beat Ottawa, but lost to Washington in spite of a club record 77 shots. "It felt sweet only because it put us in first place. My heart's always been in Buffalo," Washington coach Kilgour said. That put Buffalo at 4-2, with six of the remaining games scheduled for the road.
The Bandits won in Ottawa, but lost in Philadelphia. Wins against Columbus and Albany put the team at 7-3 and right in the middle of the playoff fight. In between those wins, Buffalo tried to resolve its goaltending situation with an unusual deal. How many times are two goalies traded for each other in midseason when neither of them has a win? That was the case when the Bandits sent holdout Disher to Ottawa's Derek Collins, who was 0-10 with the Rebel.
"I didn't feel like there was any pressure on me, I was just eager to get in there," Collins said about his debut against Albany. "I wanted to do my job. I had the confidence that these guys would play well in front of me and score goals. It's nice to be on a team like that."
Rochester spoiled some of the Bandits' playoff dreams with a 10-9 win in HSBC Arena. If the Bandits were going to make the playoffs, they'd have to earn it. Kilgour's number, #43, was retired before that game; it was interesting that it wasn't done when Washington had been in town the previous month.
"It's kind of ironic," said Bandits forward Shawn Williams, who led his team with three goals. "All year we've been scoring so much that we've been burning the lights out. Then we finally have a game where we play really good defense, and we just don't score enough."
The Bandits did beat Albany on the road, and Tavares recorded his 86th point of the season in the process to break the NLL scoring record. But the Bandits then lost in Rochester to put a dent in its playoff hopes, and lost to New York, 18-13 (Roy Colsey with eight goals for the Saints), to finish 8-6 on the season. That wasn't good enough for the postseason, especially since the Bandits went 2-5 against playoff teams.
Tavares had a spectacular year with 51 goals and 64 assists for 115 points (team record in all three categories). He was named the league's Most Valuable Player and was a first-team All-Pro.
"I never thought he'd score that many points," Sawicki said of Tavares. "But we always seem to need him. We've had to rely on him more than I wanted."
Williams (77 points) and Malawsky (70 points) weren't far behind. Powell finished with 35 points in his rookie season but had some growing pains adjusting to the indoor game. Wetherup made the all-rookie team with a 6-4 record, while Collins went 1-2 after arriving in Buffalo.
The playoffs were terrific, with all three games decided by one goal. Philadelphia edged Toronto to win the championship. But Buffalo had been merely decent in 2001, a year that saw Ottawa win only one game and Columbus take three. Meanwhile, the Bandits never drew as many as 9,000 fans to a single home game.
The team's glory days were starting to become a bit distant.
The two finalists for the National Lacrosse League championship in 1999 were Toronto and Rochester. The Rock, coached by Les Bartley and led in part by Jim Veltman -- two familiar names in Buffalo, won the title by a 13-10 count, finishing with seven straight wins. Both teams were less than two hours away by car from Buffalo, adding to the pressure on the Bandits to improve, and soon.
With reports circulating that the Bandits were not exactly leading the league in chemistry by the end of the season, the team's management pushed coach Les Wakeling out the door. He finished with a career 10-14 record.
"For some reason, the guys just didn't perform for Les," general manager Kurt Silcott said. "It was a very rough decision for me personally. Les is a good person, a good friend, a good coach. But it was a business decision for the good of the team."
"It bothers me because I failed and I have an ego just like everyone else," Wakeling said. "I was very close to a lot of the guys and I've coached them for a lot of years. I feel bad for them and I'm sure they feel bad for me."
Replacing Wakeling was Ted Sawicki, who had been an assistant under Wakeling for the previous two years. Sawicki had been a top-flight player in the days of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, earning a championship as the goalie for the 1991 Detroit Turbos.
"I've been a head coach for a club field lacrosse team in Hamilton and at the high school level as well, but no, this will be my first real venture into being a head coach," said Sawicki, who reportedly was selected ahead of finalists Terry Sanderson and Barry Powless. "I'm nervous about it but I'm also very eager."
The Bandits revamped their lineup for the 2000 season. At the draft, Buffalo made a series of moves. The team had the sixth overall pick entering the draft. First, the Bandits moved up to No. 2 when they sent their pick, along with forwards Steve Fannell and John Rosa, to the expansion Albany Attack. Buffalo then sent the No. 2 pick to the New York Saints for third-year forward Chris Prat and the Saints' first pick, No. 4 overall. Next, the Bandits sent the No. 4 overall pick to the defending champion Toronto Rock for third-year forward Shawn Williams and Toronto's second-round pick. Got all that?
Remember Mike Accursi, who essentially called Buffalo a bunch of old men in 1999? He'd try to speed up the tempo as a Bandit. Another important new face was Derek Malawsky, who had taken a year off after playing for Ontario in 19998. Second-round draft choice Pat Maddalena also was around. In all, nine rookies would see action for Buffalo. The goaltenders, Matt Disher and Marty O'Neill, were back.
"Obviously, last year we stuck with some guys too long," said ninth-year forward Rich Kilgour. "Change is going to happen. It happens in every sport."
Around the league, Albany became the latest expansion team and was named the Attack to fill out an eight-team league. Troy Cordingly was lost by the Bandits to the Attack in the expansion draft. The Baltimore franchise moved to Pittsburgh and picked CrosseFire as a name.
The schedule-maker didn't do the Bandits any favors at the start of the season, putting them up against the defending champions. The Rock won that game, 17-14.
"I thought Toronto took advantage of their opportunities better than we did and that was the slim advantage they enjoyed," Sawicki said. "But I can't see us going anywhere but up. It's a rebuilding year for us here and I hope the fans are patient with us. We've got great talent, we're going places."
Buffalo rebounded nicely with a wild 22-21 win over Syracuse for its first home win in exactly a year. Buffalo was down five goals early in the fourth quarter, but won on Accursi's goal with 24.7 seconds left.
"John [Tavares] took the shot, the rebound came from behind the net and I came off the boards," said Accursi, who finished with two goals and five points. "I fought hard out in front to get position, I got the ball and just threw it at the net. It was all like in slow motion as it was going in. Once it went in, it was such an unbelievable adrenaline rush."
After a win over Albany, the Bandits dropped their first road game of the season, 17-14 on "Guaranteed Win Night" in Pittsburgh. They then back to beat Rochester, Toronto and New York to move to 5-2 on the season. This, clearly, was more Bandit-like. It also was good for first place in the standings.
"Despite our fundamental bumbling and ineptness we came through and still won," Sawicki said about the New York game. "That shows a lot of character so I have to look at it in a positive way. We threw the ball away too much, we got beat to loose balls. We were poor offensively and defensively. But the ultimate goal is to get two points, so mission accomplished."
Buffalo lost in Rochester, but won three of its next four games. The team closed out the season with an 8-4 record. That was good for second place, tied with Rochester and a game behind Toronto. The Bandits' offense was a big factor in their rise. They led the league in goals with 202, even if they did allow 194.
Old faithful John Tavares had 34 goals and 83 points to lead the team. He was first-team all-league again, and had the added distinction of being selected as the league's Most Valuable Player. It was the first time since 1994 that Paul Gait hadn't won the league MVP.
"There's no one more deserving for the MVP award than John Tavares," said Buffalo teammate Kilgour. "I know J.T. doesn't play this game for individual awards but it's great to see him get this kind of recognition. I personally think he should have won it more than twice during his career."
Malawsky had 28 goals, Accursi had 30, Williams added 21 and Prat contributed 20. In goal, Disher saw most of the work. He went 6-3 in 11 games while O'Neill was 2-1 in five games.
The Bandits had qualified for the postseason, and were even at home for the semifinals on April 21. However, Rochester spoiled the party with a 15-11 victory. John Grant, the first overall draft choice the previous fall and the league's rookie of the year, was named the game MVP.
"John's kind of a combination of J.T. [Buffalo's Tavares] and [Pittsburgh's] Gary Gait," said Pat O'Toole, the former Buffalo goalie who got his revenge on the Bandits by leading Rochester to the championship game. "You can't believe some of the goals John scores. You're not supposed to be taking some of those shots and he's burying them."
The game was witnessed by 7,873. That was virtually the same as what the team had averaged for the entire season. There was only one crowd above 10,000 at home, which is quite a change for a team that once sold out 10 straight games.
In other words, Bandits' fans may have been quietly encouraged by the progress on the field, but they weren't quite ready to fall in love again.
The most obvious change for the Buffalo Bandits for the 1999 season was in goal. The team had made a clean sweep at the position.
In the summer draft of 1998, the Bandits had taken Matt Disher with their first round pick (seventh overall). It was the first time that Buffalo had used a first-rounder on a goalie, and the team obviously had hopes that he could make the jump to the NLL quickly. For insurance, the team signed free agent Marty O'Neill to serve as the other goalie. He was a veteran of the league, performing for Pittsburgh, Boston and Syracuse. Pat O'Toole was released to make room for O'Neill.
On the field, Buffalo picked up Neil Doddridge and a first-round pick acquired from Philadelphia for Jason Luke and the Bandits' second-round pick. Syracuse also dealt Jamie Batley to Buffalo for a future pick. Not done yet, the Bandits dealt a first-round pick (fourth overall) to Baltimore in exchange for Chris Panos. Off the field, Kurt Silcott moved up to general manager and Ron Roy moved from scout to assistant coach.
For the league, the Hamilton franchise had moved to Toronto and been nicknamed the Rock. The name was said to be a tribute to the city's rock-and-roll heritage.
The season got off to a relatively promising start, as the Bandits beat Philadelphia, 18-17 in overtime on a night when the Wings raised their championship banner. The home opener a week later was a 22-15 thumping at the hands of Baltimore, watched by only 10,216 -- the second-smallest crowd in franchise history. That was followed by a 11-10 loss to Toronto (the Rock's first-ever game in Maple Leaf Gardens) and a thrilling 17-16 home win over Syracuse, featuring a late game-winning goal by Panos off a behind-the-head pass from Rich Kilgour.
The season was interrupted at its midpoint by the league's first-ever All-Star Game, which was held in Rochester. The Canadian All-Stars beat the American All-Stars, 25-24 on an overtime goal by Ted Dowling of Rochester. Rich Kilgour of Buffalo had four goals in less than five minutes. John Tavares, Troy Cordingly, Panos and Darris Kilgour also participated.
The Bandits recovered briefly from its slump to win three of the next four to move to 4-3, but that was followed by a five-game losing streak to end the season. Panos, so upset over being a healthy scratch for a Rochester game that he asked to be traded, was sent to New York as part of a three-way deal that included the Syracuse Smash. The Bandits acquired Mike Benedict and a first-rounder in 2000 from the Smash for a '99 first-rounder. Steve Kisslinger and a third-rounder came to Buffalo from the Saints. The deals didn't help Buffalo; old friend Jim Veltman scored six seconds into overtime to give the Rock a 13-12 win over the Bandits.
In the midst of that skid, on March 28 Buffalo dealt an original Bandit, Darris Kilgour, to Rochester. Buffalo sent Kilgour, forward Dean Cecconi and a fourth-round pick in the 2000 entry draft to Rochester for forwards Chris Driscoll and Brent Rothfuss, as well as the Knighthawks' first- and second-round picks in the 1999 draft. Kilgour was planning to retire at the end of the season because of a bad hip, but it was still the end of an era.
"We've played our entire careers together," said Rich Kilgour, the Bandits captain, about brother Darris. "Even when we were younger and wrestling kind of near the same weight, our parents made sure we got into different (weight) classes and never wrestled against each other. When he was traded it was a sad day for me, but I guess that's the nature of the beast."
Wakeling was right about one thing about Darris Kilgour: "He'll make a tremendous coach some day. He's a born coach."
For the record, the Bandits retired their first uniform number on March 20 before the Rochester game. Number 34 was retired in honor of Thomas Gardner, an organizer of youth lacrosse in Western New York.
Back on the field, a loss in the next-to-last game to Rochester, 15-13, formally ended the team's playoff hopes. It would be the first time in team history that it missed the postseason.
"It sunk in the minute I heard the final buzzer that it was all over for us," said the Bandits' Travis Kilgour, who had two goals and one assist. "I felt like I wanted to cry."
(There's a footnote to this game. A typo in the Bandits' media guide somewhere along the line gave the team a win in this game. The mistake was found and corrected in 2012. It's not easy to lose a game 13 years after the fact.)
A week later, Syracuse ended Buffalo's season with a 14-11 win before 3,452 -- the smallest crowd to ever watch a Bandits game in history, home or away. The Smash ended a seven-game losing streak.
"I'm disappointed with the way things went; deep down I guess I'm glad it's finally over," said Tavares.
"They [the Bandits] are a lot slower than they used to be and they can't play run-and-gun like they used to," the 24-year-old Mike Accursi of Syracuse said. "Other teams have so many younger guys. Some of these Buffalo guys are so old they could be my dad."
The 4-8 record, including a 1-5 mark at home, was easily the worst in Bandits' history, and only a game better than Syracuse's cellar-dwelling season. John Tavares was one of the few bright spots with 33 goals and 34 assists. That was fifth in the league, and put him back on the first-team all-league squad for the seventh straight year.
Batley had a respectable 31 points. In goal, Disher had a 1-5 record while O'Neill finished 3-3. "It wasn't so much the number of shots, but the quality of shots," O'Neill said. "A lot of times we saw guys standing all alone in front of us. You just can't win when you allow that."
Trades didn't help, although Driscoll and Benedict ranked with the team's top scorers in the overall statistics. The team ran through 31 different players in a year to forget.
Just to add to the problems, the team's average attendance dropped an all-time low of 9,638. It had been more than 12,000 in 1998 and 17,500 in 1997. The six home games produced six of the seven smallest home gates ever.
It was a year of big changes in the world of indoor lacrosse, internationally and locally.
Start with the name of the league. The Major Indoor Lacrosse League was out, the National Lacrosse League was in. The NLL got away from the idea of the league owning all the teams and working out management contracts with local groups (like, in Buffalo's case, the Sabres organization). The NLL teams now had local owners, which in Buffalo's case were the Sabres' group. John Livsey, a former Sabres and Bills marketing executive, took over as commissioner, and expansion teams were placed in Hamilton, Ont., and Syracuse. When Boston asked for a season off to regroup, membership in the league was six teams with a 12-game schedule.
That had a domino effect on the Bandits. Les Bartley had been associated with Buffalo right from the start of the franchise. He had the title of assistant coach in that first championship season of 1992, and then was promoted to head coach and eventually added two more championships. It seemed like a perfect marriage. But Bartley found it tough to turn down an invitation to come to Hamilton to run the Ontario Raiders. Bartley left with a career coaching record of 36-13 in Buffalo (or, 31-13, if you give the five wins of 1992 to Bob McCready).
Les Wakeling was named as Bandits' head coach. He had been the head coach of two teams in the Ontario Lacrosse Association, where he won five straight Canadian Senior championships.
"It all starts with hard work in your own end of the rink," said Wakeling. "I'm still a firm believer that your transition game revolves around defense. We're going to work harder at being a good defensive club."
Wakeling did know the team's personnel; he had coached such players as John Tavares, Troy Cordingly, Rich and Travis Kilgour, and Tom Pfair. Marty Cooper was Wakeling's assistant coach as well as the team's general manager, while Ted Sawicki stayed on as an assistant coach for a third season.
Wakeling kept the nucleus of his team more or less intact for the 1998 season. John Rosa was one of the few new faces; he had taken two years off after playing for the Bandits in 1995. Gone were 29-year-old Bill Callan, Neil Doddridge, 28, and Ted Dowling, 27. Rich Kilgour became the captain as replaced Brian Hall, who did not make the team.
It didn't take long to figure out something wasn't quite right. Buffalo dropped a 14-12 decision to Philadelphia in the opener. "We got caught flat-footed time after time and didn't transition well at all to defense. We just have to work harder," Tavares said.
Then, after a win against New York, the Bandits lost a 15-6 game to Rochester. It was the biggest loss and worst offensive output in team history.
"They played harder than us, they were hungrier than us and they deserved to win this game the way they did," said Darris Kilgour, who had two goals and an assist. "A lot of our guys packed it in early. We can't be happy with this effort and we won't be."
Losses followed to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Every loss was by at least five goals. A home overtime win over Rochester stopped the bleeding for a moment (Tavares had the goal), but the Bandits lost to Ontario and coach Bartley the next night. "It's a heck of a lot nicer being on this end of a close one," said Bartley, whose Raiders had lost three one-goal games this season. Buffalo beat New York the next week but lost to Baltimore at home a week later. That put the Bandits at 3-6 for the season and in serious trouble.
"If we can win our last three games we'll be in the playoffs, it's that simple," Cordingley said. "We haven't found out yet what it takes to play consistently but I believe we can find it. But we'd better do it soon."
The expansion teams allowed Buffalo to fatten up its record, just in the nick of time. The Bandits beat Ontario once and Syracuse twice to finish at 6-6. The last win clinched a playoff spot.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," said Tavares, who had four goals and eight assists in game number 12. "It seemed like [Ontario and Rochester] were both winning for the longest time. There were times I was thinking maybe we wouldn't make the playoffs but we had to fight on."
For the first time in team history, Tavares did not lead the team in scoring thanks in part to a knee injury that forced him to miss three and one-half games. Darris Kilgour had that distinction with a 67-point season, complete with 37 goals. "He had a great year when he was a rookie but there were times this year when Darris just carried this team," said Bandits captain Rich Kilgour, Darris' older brother. "He really showed just what kind of a team player he is." Tavares was second with 56 points, and both players were first-team all-league selections. Cordingley had 42 points in his first full season after suffering a severe injury in 1996.
Pat O'Toole and Ross Cowie divided the goaltending chores, but neither was a clear number one until late in the season. O'Toole played 369 minutes and had a 4-3 record; Cowie played 322 minutes and was 1-3. O'Toole did see all of the work down the stretch, as he played in six straight games.
The Bandits did earn a playoff spot, edging Ontario on a tiebreaker and getting a trip to Philadelphia to play the 9-3 Wings on April 18 in the bargain. The Wings were too good for Buffalo, taking a 17-12 decision. Darris Kilgour had four goals. The key moment came when the Wings scored five straight goals in the fourth quarter. "It seemed to me like it was only a few minutes, but that stretch of goals just buried us," said Wakeling.
If having more 1998 losses than wins weren't enough of a problem, the Bandits showed some signs that their honeymoon with the fans of Western New York was coming to an end. The opener had drawn only 11,402, and the highwater mark in attendance came against Rochester on February 20 (14,230). Considering how Buffalo was now surrounded by rivals who were capable of attracting fans, it was easy to wonder if the league's expansion had damaged one of its flagship franchises.
What's more, the team wasn't done sinking on the field.
If the plan by the management of the Buffalo Sabres was to build support for a new arena, the idea came to a successful conclusion in the fall of 1996. That's when the new Marine Midland Arena opened, a mere block from Memorial Auditorium.
Most of the Bandits from the championship team made the walk. "There's no doubt, we liked the chemistry of last year's team," Bandits coach Les Bartley said.
Jim Veltman didn't, and he'd be missed. Veltman and his wife went on an 18-month humanitarian mission to Uganda. Mike Hasen also was missing from the roster of the 1997 team, but the rest of the group was intact. League-wide, Charlotte had disappeared from the league after a dismal year.
When it was time to start the season on January 4, the Rochester Knighthawks came in to spoil the party. The Knighthawks took a 19-17 decision before a sellout crowd of 18,595, a number that set a league attendance record.
"We had a lot of extra-man opportunities and we took advantage of them," said Rochester's Paul Gait, whose team capitalized on 16 Buffalo penalties with eight power-play goals. "When you play five against four, you should get open shots by moving the ball around. We played pretty smart and they took penalties down near the end that cost them."
That was the start of an up-and-down season in which the Bandits never did get a great deal of momentum. Buffalo split two games with Boston, and then won three in a row to move to 4-2. But the Bandits lost that momentum with defeats at the hands of New York and Philadelphia. The latter, a 16-8 thumping right in HSBC Arena, sent quite a message.
"As soon as we started getting into that penalty stuff, that was the end for us," Bartley said. "They get eight power-play goals, that's the game right there. Everything else is fairly even on the (stat) sheet. People start taking things into their own hands, playing foolishly, and what you come up with is a game like this."
Wins over the Wings and Baltimore merely got Buffalo above .500 for the 10-game season at 6-4. That was a game behind Philadelphia for first place in the six-team league, and tied for second with New York.
John Tavares led the team in scoring, like he had for every other season, with 37 goals and 66 points. It was another first-team MILL effort. Darris Kilgour (second team all-league) was second at 42 points, followed by Ted Dowling at 39 points. Rich Kilgour had 35 points in only nine games. Troy Cordingly suffered a severe ankle injury midway through the season, and that hurt the offense. Coach Les Bartley gave most of the goaltending work to Ross Cowie, as he played in 410 of the 600 minutes and went 5-4. Pat O'Toole was relegated to backup duty.
The Bandits hosted the Saints in the first round game on April 5, and Buffalo made quick work of New York in a 19-10 romp. Cowie was named game MVP. "I don't know that a goaltender could play better than Ross did for the first three quarters last week," Bartley said, referring to Cowie's 42-save performance. Dowling had four goals and Tavares and Luke added three each. The game was played before 12,155.
That set up the championship game a week later, and the Bandits caught a break -- so they thought when they discovered that Rochester had surprised Philadelphia, 15-13, in the other semifinal. It meant that the Wings would not play in a title game for the first time since 1991. The Bandits' hopes of defending their title, though, came to an end when Rochester took a 15-12 victory before 18,055. Steve Dietrich of the Knighthawks was the game MVP. Tavares had four goals, but no one else had more than two.
"Too many penalties by us, too much good goaltending by them," said Tavares, whose team took 14 penalties for 31 minutes compared to 11 for 22 for the Knighthawks. "We had our opportunities but we weren't scoring. Sometimes it's hard to keep everybody focused on the game at hand when that happens."
The Bandits needed to enjoy the hoopla of a championship game, because they wouldn't be seeing one for quite a while.
It just didn't seem like the same old Buffalo Bandits in the 1996 season, especially in goal.
Pat O'Toole had played in two games for New York in 1995, and was acquired by the Bandits. Ross Cowie became his backup, while Bill Gerrie left the team. There were other new faces in front of O'Toole including Ted Dowling, Travis Kilgour (Rich and Darris' brother), Tom Pfair, future Rochester Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen, Neil Doddridge and top draft choice Jason Luke. In all, 12 new players were on the roster, and seven would go on to see significant playing time. In addition, Brian Hall took over from Jim Veltman as captain.
Still, Les Bartley was around as coach, and he had a knack for winning.
"The thing I remember the most about Les is that he was a real people person," Veltman said. "He let you believe that you came up with the ideas he tried to implement. He made you buy in. He made you think you were contributing, but he had in the back of his mind how he wanted to steer the conversation. He made up feel like we had a big part in what happened on the floor. That speaks volumes."
The results were immediate. Buffalo beat the Wings in Philadelphia, 15-12, on Opening Night on January 12. O'Toole had 51 saves as the Wings' 15-game win streak came to an end. "The night before the game I could hardly sleep at all," O'Toole said. "I was very nervous because I was getting my chance as the No. 1 goaltender and I wanted to prove myself as a No. 1 goaltender. But I calmed down and things worked out all right."
That victory was followed by wins over Baltimore, Boston, and Rochester. The Bandits moved to 5-0 with a 28-6 win over expansion team Charlotte, setting all sorts of team records in the process.
"We buried all of our chances tonight," said John Tavares. "I have mixed feelings about setting the (team goal) record in a game like this. It's nice to get but we certainly didn't want to embarrass them. They're a first-year team and they're still learning. We just scored a lot of nice goals on them."
Baltimore and Boston fell after that to put the Bandits at 7-0. Hopes of an undefeated season ended on March 16, when Rochester won in Buffalo, 17-14.
"If you don't maintain your defensive intensity for 60 minutes, this is what happens," Bartley said. "Somebody comes into your barn and beats you."
The Bandits divided their last two games, beating New York but losing to Philadelphia.
"You could see we were getting a little complacent before we lost those two games," fifth-year forward Rich Kilgour said later. "As veterans, we took it upon ourselves to make sure all the younger players were back in the right frame of mind for the playoffs."
The 8-2 season tied the Bandits with Philadelphia for the best record in the league, but Buffalo claimed first place on a tiebreaker. Tavares led the team in scoring with 81 points in the expanded 10-game schedule. Cordingley had 59 points, while Dowling chipped in 39. O'Toole played in 10 games and finished with a 7-2 won-loss record, setting a team record for wins in a season. Tavares and Veltman were first-team all-league selections as usual. Tavares led the league in scoring by a wide margin, but lost the vote for league MVP to Gary Gait of Philadelphia. Veltman maintained his standard of play despite living in Vancouver and commuting in for games.
"We were pretty dominant," Veltman said about the season. "We had such talent on that team. It was unbelievable how much talent we had. It seemed all year that we were going to be unstoppable. It was hard for other teams to match our talent, to be frank. It was fun to go on the floor and be let loose."
Buffalo's first playoff game came against Rochester on April 6, and the Bandits came up with an 18-10 win. Travis Kilgour was the game's most valuable player, as he had four goals.
"Staying out of the penalty box was key for us," Doddridge said. "Tough defense is a lot easier to play when you know you're not going to take dumb penalties. It's something we talked about staying away from."
Less than a week later on April 12, the Bandits and Wings inevitably met for the league championship. This time, the Bandits took their turn as champions. Buffalo won a 15-10 decision before 16,230 in the Aud to deny the Wings their third straight championship. O'Toole earned game MVP honors.
"He's just like a piece of Teflon, everything just slides right off him," Dowling said of O'Toole. "He proved the last two weeks that he's the best goalie in this league, but I knew it all along. All-star teams are just popularity contests. Patty's the one wearing the ring now."
Cordingley and Luke had three goals each. It was the last lacrosse game ever played in Memorial Auditorium's history, and Cordingley had the last goal for Buffalo in that building.
"They denied us a chance to three-peat a couple years ago and it was a big thing for us to repay the favor," Cordingley said. "We showed that we were single-minded in our purpose, and that was to win back the championship for our fans."
"It was pretty sweet to beat them right there," Rich Kilgour said. "That was the greatest arena ever to play in. I love how nice the new arena is but that old arena just had character. It felt like the fans were right on top of you."
Dean Cecconi had the game-winning goal in the title game. He'll never forget that game, and that season.
"I still wear the championship ring," he said 20 years later. "It's a memento of the best time of my life."
That meant the Bandits had won three championships and played for a fourth in their five-year history. Not bad at all.