Sunday, May 15, 2011

The 2010-11 Season

(Right, Roger Vyse helps John Tavares celebrate what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the playoff game between the Bandits and the Boston Blazers in HSBC Arena. Photo courtesy of The Buffalo News/Mark Mulville.)

The biggest news bulletin of the offseason concerning the Buffalo Bandits and the rest of the National Lacrosse League might have come, of all places, out of Orlando, Florida.

The Titans had played one season there, and were a success on the field. They won the East title in the regular season. But off the field there were problems. The franchise opted to suspend operations, a sure sign the the Titans were not going to come back.

That meant the NLL would go from 11 teams to 10 for 2011. If you were a player in the league, that meant it would be 10 percent tougher to hang on to a job for the season. And that doesn't include the way that new talent was coming out of the college ranks, squeezing more veterans to retirement every year.

"If you don't come out to play, you aren't going to win the game," Bandits' forward Mark Steenhuis said. "It's going to come down to which team is willing to fight for the loose balls, fight for the game."

The two big prizes were Casey Powell, the league's first American most valuable player, who ended up in Boston. Goalie Matt Vinc was selected by Colorado in the dispersal draft, but was traded to Rochester in a deal involving John Grant Jr.

There was a lot of activity going on around the league, but not much of it centered on Buffalo. Eventually, though, news started to come out of HSBC Arena.

First was some nice news for Rich and Darris Kilgour. They were inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, the first people with lacrosse connections to be so honored.

"Twenty years ago, if you had said lacrosse players would be in the Hall of Fame, people would have laughed. I don't know how much more special it can get," Rich Kilgour said.

As for Darris, he made sure the quiet period ended. Kilgour was quietly given back the job of general manager, although it had been rather obvious in 2010 that little had changed in the organizational chart of decision-making by the team no matter what the titles in the media guide said.

Kilgour's big move came when Calgary had a problem. Star forward Tracey Kelusky had been transferred back East to Ontario, and the Roughnecks thought it might be tough to fly him out for games weekly. Calgary was in the midst of revamping its roster anyway, so a trade was worked out with Buffalo to send Kelusky to the Bandits for a first-round draft choice in 2011.

Other moves followed soon after that. Defender Billy Dee Smith figured to miss the entire year with an offseason knee injury, so a replacement was needed. Scott Self came over in a deal from Minnesota, and Jay Thorimbert, a faceoff specialist who was very much needed, joined him in Buffalo in the transaction that send a second-rounder in 2011 and a first-round in 2012 to Minnesota. Brenden Thenhaus was acquired from Boston with a first-round pick for the sixth overall choice in the dispersal draft. Chad Culp was signed as a free agent; he had been with Colorado in 2010. Travis Irving was taken in the first round of the draft; he was big and tough.

The Bandits didn't change their goaltending, even though Ken Montour was still having leftover concussion-related problems from 2010. Mike Thompson was number one, and Angus Goodleaf moved up from number two. The pair had led Peterborough to a Mann Cup championship in the summer.

Buffalo made some news in the preseason of all places. The Bandits played Toronto in Six Nations, Ont. The brawl-filled game was called in the third quarter after the proverbial bench-clearing brawl. A record of the season probably wouldn't be complete without the video.

The schedule-maker supposedly did Buffalo a favor in the early going of the 2011 season. Opening night on January 8 was against Calgary, which had gotten younger and cheaper through a series offseason moves. The Roughnecks spent several minutes before the game honoring Kelusky, including the presentation of a symbolic cowboy hat. It was a nice thank-you present for several years of great service.

Once the game began, Calgary showed it apparently meant business when Curtis Dickson scored 16 seconds into the new season. Kelusky responded about a minute later, but the Roughnecks never trailed for the rest of the game in taking a 10-9 season. That made a game in Philadelphia a week later important, since the team didn't want to fall to 0-2 in a very competitive East. The Bandits took care of business there with a 9-6 win.

The home opener -- number 20 in the career of John Tavares -- featured a game with undefeated Toronto, and it was a classic, back-and-forth contest. Finally in overtime, Self got a breakaway and ran more than halfway down the field to score the game-winner.

"Chris White picked up the loose ball, and I just yelled and took off," Self said, "He led me with a pass and I was just able to run into it."

The two teams met a week later in Toronto, and the beginning of the game was something of a payback for the preseason slugfest. Five players were ejected in the first few minutes in one of the ugliest games in recent memory.

"I think the first five minutes took about 35 minutes to play," Steenhuis said.

Once the two sides got down to business, the Rock held the Bandits to only five goals, a season low, in a 8-5 Toronto win.

Buffalo recovered to beat Minnesota at home (Tavares with two goals and six assists) and Philadelphia on the road. Tavares got his 700th career goal in the game, easily the league record.

"It think it is a pretty good feat, a good accomplishment, but it's a tribute to all the guys I've played with," Tavares said. "Without those guys, right from '92 to now, I'm not going to score those goals."

Tavares reached 1,500 points a week later, but all the Bandits were stunned at home by the Wings, 10-9, in one of the biggest upsets of the NLL season. The Wings were 6 for 9 on the power play while Buffalo was 1 for 6. The Bandits went into the All-Star break a little stunned, but several players helped the East beat the West, 30-26, in a game at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY. Tavares won the first two faceoffs of his life in that game.

Buffalo faced a difficult weekend to open the March part of the schedule, but it couldn't have gone better. Buffalo beat Rochester, 11-9, and then after overcoming some winter weather difficulties held off the Blazers in Boston, 9-8. Thompson was particularly sharp in goal in the win over the Blazers, while Clay Hill was the unlikely author of the game-winner. A home win against Boston on March 12 put the team's record at 7-3, with Tavares getting the game-winner with 2:12 left. The record moved to 8-3 with a victory on March 27 in Minnesota.

The Bandits welcomed Washington to HSBC Arena on April 2, and it looked as if the Stealth would leave a loser. The Bandits had the ball and a one-goal lead with about 34 seconds left. All they needed to do was kill off the 30 seconds on the shot clock, and Washington wouldn't have time to do much. Instead, Mark Steenhuis missed a shot without about 15 seconds left, Washington scooped up the ball and went down the floor, and Rhys Duch tied the game with 10 seconds left. Then the Stealth won the game in overtime on a goal by Cam Sedgwick.

It prompted the quote of the year from Kilgour, who said, "We have the stupidest team on the face of the planet."

The Bandits got smarter a week later. The Rock needed only to win to clinch the division title, and the game was at home. But Buffalo won, 11-8, and the Bandits went to Rochester a day later to beat the Knighthawks to take a firm hold on the division. Steenhuis scored with 52 seconds left for the 9-8 victory.

At 10-4, Buffalo had a chance at the best overall record in the league. Instead, Boston came in and blasted the Bandits, 16-9, on a night that spoiled Rich Kilgour's uniform number retirement ceremony. The only consolation came when Toronto lost in Edmonton, giving Buffalo the East title. A week later, Rochester put on a clinic to take a 15-9 decision in the season finale.

"Obviously the guys shut her down with two weeks left in the season," Darris Kilgour said. "They weren't too worried about our home record."

Buffalo finished the regular season at 10-6, in a three-way tie for the lead in the East but the winner on tiebreakers. However, the team's record at home was only 4-4.

Tavares finished the season as the team's leading scorer with 78 points. Steenhuis had 61 points despite flipping between offense and defense at times. Kelusky had 21 goals and 54 points, a bit of a disappointment since it was his worst full season since 2003. Culp and Thenhaus chipped in with 21 and 17 goals respectively. Tom Montour had 17 points in a transition role. Chris Corbeil led the team with 121 loose balls and showed great improvement in his defensive play.

Thompson was second in goals-against average at 9.67, .01 behind Anthony Cosmo of Boston. If Thompson had played 47 more seconds, he would have tied for first. Goodleaf's GAA was only 10.19, but he lost as many games as Thompson -- 3.

The Bandits drew Boston in the first-round playoff game at home. The Blazers went 8-8 in the regular season, but were considered a very dangerous opponent because of their offensive firepower. Buffalo played superbly for 55 minutes, taking a 10-6 lead. Then Boston pulled its goalie, and ran off four straight goals to tie the game with about a minute left.

With that, Tavares did his best Kirk Gibson impression. Tavares went into the training room for work on a sore calf and the game apparently in hand at 10-6. When he saw the score change to 10-10, he returned to the bench and got the ball with less than a minute left. Shot, goal, game. It was the highlight of the season.

"Tracey made a great play, helping me to get open," Tavares siad. "I got some room and shot."

Here are some highlights:

However, the ending wasn't a good sign for the future. Tavares had his calf treated during a Thursday practice in HSBC Arena. He thought he might be able to play in the East final against Toronto. But when Vyse came up a little lame in warmups, Kilgour said he thought he couldn't afford to have two injured forwards. So Tavares sat, and the Bandits acted like they couldn't play without him.

"We definitely weren't ready to play," Vyse said about the start.

Toronto jumped out to a 6-0 lead before Tavares' replacement, Kyle Clancy, finally got the Bandits on the board in the second quarter. Buffalo reduced the lead to 7-6 by 10:37 of the first half when Toronto scored twice to make it 9-6.

The Rock built up another lead, going up by 12-7 early in the fourth quarter. Again, the Bandits clawed back, getting to within 12-11 with 4:35 to go. Clancy had four goals at that point. But Buffalo couldn't get the tying goal. Their last chance came when Brett Bucktooth was stopped by Toronto goalie Bob Watson in the final 15 seconds. That was that.

About 28 hours later, police in Lewiston noticed a car in a ditch. When they investigated, they later charged Kilgour with a DWI offense and three other violations. While it seemed unlikely that Kilgour would lose his job over the matter, it was difficult to know what might happen otherwise considering that the Bandits had a new owner in Terry Pegula, who bought the team and the Sabres during the course of the season. There was some uncertainly as the team headed into the offseason after a 2011 campaign that was better than expected but fell short of the team's goal.