Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 2009-10 Season

It seemed like an innocent question.

The Buffalo Bandits had just completed the National Lacrosse League draft in September 2009 in Buffalo's HSBC Arena. General manager and head coach Darris Kilgour was telling a small group of reporters about the Bandits' moves and picks.

Then, a reporter said that Kilgour had said after the previous spring's playoff loss that he was considering giving up some of his responsibilities. Since there had been no announcement over the summer, "Is everything all set for the upcoming season?" he asked.

Yes, Kilgour said. He was stepping down as general manager. Derek Graham would take a more active role in the team's front office, eventually being named associate general manager. Whoa.

"It's not so much that I lost focus on coaching [last year], but I want to focus on coaching again," Kilgour said. "It was either play the chess match of being a GM, or play the checkers match of being the coach. I prefer checkers."

Kilgour, then, had scooped his own team with the news, leaving some mouths open among front office members. It wasn't expected to alter the day-to-day operations of the team much, but it was a big surprise.

The "announcement" capped quite a day for the Bandits. They had traded up into the first round to take Kyle Clancy, and selected defenders Chris Corbeil and Steve Priolo in the second round. Buffalo sent its third round pick to Washington (just moved from San Jose) for Frank Resetarits, a Hamburg native who jumped at the chance to come home and play lacrosse. Jon Harasym was acquired for a draft pick.

The Bandits weren't done making moves in preparation for the 2010 campaign. Phil Sanderson and Pat McCready were off to Toronto. Chris Driscoll came in exchange for Sanderson, while draft picks were acquired for McCready. A.J. Shannon also was signed.

In terms of the league, there were some changes as well. The New York Titans gave up trying to play in the New York area and moved to Orlando, Florida, not exactly known as a lacrosse hotbed. As mentioned, San Jose moved to suburban Seattle and became the Washington Stealth. The Portland Lumberjax decided it couldn't go on, particularly in a difficult economic climate, and folded. Buffalo took Jamison Koesterer in the dispersal draft, but traded him to Washington so he could stay on the West Coast.

It didn't take long to figure out that this would be a difficult season for the Bandits, particularly at the start. Buffalo opened its season in Rochester. Less than 15 minutes before the start of the game, the scratches were announced -- and John Tavares was one of them. The 41-year-old had only missed a few games in his entire, 18-year career with the Bandits. Tavares said after the game that he had a calf injury and just wasn't ready to play.

Without the league's all-time scorer, the Bandits got blasted by the Knighthawks, 10-5. Rochester had some of the top players in the game's history, including Gary Gait, John Grant and Shawn Evans. The Knighthawks showed that again with a 13-11 in Buffalo the following week; again, Tavares was out.

"He's our quarterback. He makes everyone around him better, and right now that's what we're missing," Kilgour said about Tavares.

The schedule didn't do the Bandits any favors at that point. Buffalo played at Washington and Edmonton on back-to-back nights (Jan. 22-23). Those two teams later played for the Western Division playoff championship; they were both better than the Bandits on this particular weekend. It was a confused bunch of lacrosse players who came back home from that road trip.

"Everything's gone wrong," Kilgour said. "The defense can't get a stop, the offense can't get a goal, Kenny [Montour, the starting goalie] cant make a stop."

Mark Steenhuis provided a short-term cure on January 30, as he scored a goal and seven assists to lead the Bandits to an 11-7 win. That was offset by a 14-10 loss to Toronto -- despite two goals and five assists from rookie Clancy -- sink Buffalo's record to 1-5. Montour suffered a concussion in that game; he finished it but missed the next two contests.

That left Buffalo and Philadelphia at the bottom of the East, with a home-and-home series coming up. Tavares finally came back to the lineup, and scored a couple of goals to help the Bandits win, 13-11, in Philadelphia. But the good feelings only lasted a week, as Buffalo lost to the Wings, 15-11, at home. That put the Bandits' record at the halfway point at a dreary 2-6.

"I think it's as low as Buffalo has ever been," defender Billy Dee Smith said.

There was plenty of carnage from the first half. Shannon and Delby Powless were released, and Driscoll was traded to Rochester for a pair of second-round draft choices. Other players bounced in and out of the lineup as Kilgour searched for a good combination.

About the only good news from the first half was that Rich Kilgour has been selected for the NLL's Hall of Fame. Kilgour, who played for the Bandits from 1992 to 2009, was picked right after retirement.

"It was 18 years doing something I loved; it leaves you speechless," Kilgour said about the selection.

The Bandits started the second half with what was easily their best game of the season to date. They beat Orlando, 12-10, on March 6. Steenhuis (six goals and four assists) and Montour (43 saves, including some incredible ones) were the standouts, but the whole team played with emotion and determination.

"We yelled we patted them on the back -- I don't know what clicked this time," Darris Kilgour said. "It's been the same stuff we've been telling them all season. They chose to fight this time."

Still, the Bandits had a big hill in front of them. They had to play two of the teams in front of them in the East on the road on back-to-back nights. And Montour was again suffering from concussion-related symptoms, which would end his season. Mike Thompson saw most of the duty in goal the rest of the way. Luckily, they had Tavares on the roster. On March 12, the Bandits -- who gave up the tying goal with two seconds left -- topped Toronto, 11-10, in overtime on a goal by Tavares. The next night, Tavares came through in overtime again in a 9-8 decision.

In the Toronto game, Kilgour had broken Les Bartley's league record for career coaching wins in regular season games. It was win number 94.

After a week off, Buffalo played in Rochester for the third time in the regular season. In this meeting, the Bandits made Rochester look old and tired in recording a convincing 14-7 win. Buffalo had come all the way back to .500 after an 0-4 start.

The good feelings lasted only a week. Buffalo's next game was against lowly Colorado, the worst team in the West. The Bandits played poorly for 58 minutes, falling behind by 11-7. They scored four goals in the last 86 seconds to tie the game, only to lose when Nick Carlson of the Mammoth scored on a breakaway at 1:25 of overtime.

"We never should have been in that position," Kevin Dostie said about the need for the furious rally.

Back to work, then. Buffalo knocked off Toronto, 13-10, blowing an 8-2 third-quarter lead that turned into a 10-10 tie, only to see Mike Accursi score the game-winning goal. When Accursi was asked if the Bandits ever did things the easy way, he replied, "No ... never." No one was arguing.

That set up an amazingly complex playoff race, with five teams fighting for the four spots. It was still possible for the five teams to finish 8-8, which would leave one team as division co-champion and out of the playoffs. Buffalo could have taken a big step toward clinching a playoff berth with a win in Orlando, and for 26 minutes that looked very possible. The Bandits had a 7-1 lead and seemed to be in control.

Then the rest of the game was played. Buffalo was outscored, 8-0, the rest of the way, which adds up to a 9-7 loss. With the other results factored in, the Bandits' task for the regular season finale became simple -- "It's a case where we win and play more lacrosse, or lose and play golf," Graham said.

The golf clubs could wait. Buffalo grabbed a 7-4 lead in the first half, and held off Boston the rest of the way for a 13-10 win that put the Bandits in third place for the season with an 8-8 record. Brett Bucktooth had the goal of the year along the way:

"It's been a hard year coaching and a hard year playing," Kilgour said. "We just couldn't put it altogether. On nights when we had bad goaltending, we had good offense. On some nights, we had good defense and bad defense."

Steenhuis finished tied for sixth in the league in scoring with 36 goals and led the team with 90 points. Tavares was second on the team with 49 points in only 10 games. While Accursi, Dostie and Bucktooth had good years, players such as Roger Vyse and Sean Greenhalgh came close to disappearing. The offense, which had scored at least 15 goals in six different games in 2009, had no such games in 2010.

Waiting in the playoffs was second-place Toronto ... again. Both teams had scored 34 goals in the three regular season matchups, and the Bandits had won two of the games in part because of Tavares' overtime goal. No one expected anything but a close game, which is why the start was so surprising.

After 20 minutes of play, the Bandits were leading, 6-0. Bucktooth and Accursi had two goals each, and Thompson was stopping everything thrown at him. The out-of-town scoreboard showed Boston leading Orlando, and it was possible to dream about home-field advantage in a week, followed by a championship game appearance in ...

The dream promptly ended, and the nightmare began. The Rock slowly but steadily started to climb back into the game. The Bandits had a 7-4 lead at the half and a 9-8 margin after three quarters, as the momentum kept shifting toward Toronto.

With about five and one-half minutes, Stephan Leblanc (five goals) gave the Rock its first lead of the game. Colin Doyle got his fourth 29 seconds later, and Toronto killed off the rest of the game to advance to the East final -- where it beat Orlando but lost to Washington in the NLL final.

"Really disappointing," said Accursi, who had six goals, one away from Steenhuis' team playoff record, about the season's conclusion.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Bandits lost more games than they won (8-9) -- the first time that had happened since 1999. It felt like another lively offseason was in the offing in Buffalo.