BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — A juiced crowd of orange-clad devotees was welcomed at KeyBank Center on Saturday night by a sentimental video narrated by John Tavares, the Hall of Famer who played in the first 24 Bandits seasons and is in his fourth as head coach.
“You fuel us, you encourage us, you all inspire us, you deserve our best and we strive to make you all proud,” said Tavares, concluding his message with, “there’s no place like Banditland.”
The ferocious fans energized the arena from before the opening faceoff until after the final horn, jeering the officials and applauding players as they left the floor with their sticks raised in appreciation.
The home team couldn’t quite match the fanatical energy in chasing the Albany FireWolves throughout an 11-10 loss in the National Lacrosse League season opener.
“I thought it was important to get off to a good start,” Tavares said. “Especially the way the season ended last year,” losing the NLL finals in a decisive third game at home, “our guys are still bummed about it. It’s a new beginning for our team and it’s unfortunate to get off on the wrong foot.”
Buffalo won last year’s home opener by seven goals and started 7-0 on its way to winning the Eastern Conference. They will be chasing from the start of this season, as Toronto and Halifax each won by double-digit goals Friday.
After getting the game’s opening tally from Tehoka Nanticoke, the Bandits fell behind 4-1 early in the second quarter before battling back to tie the game on Nanticoke’s third goal of the night with 3:30 into the fourth.
“Our effort with not giving up and continually coming back and tying the game, I have to be proud of them and build off of that,” said Tavares, a member of the NLL Hall of Fame, as well as the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, and most recently, Canada Sports Hall of Fame.
The Bandits had a 54-39 advantage in shots on goal. But they weren’t always sharp on attack, Tavares noted, and Albany goaltender Doug Jamieson was up to the task with a sterling .814 save percentage.
“We had 15 more shots but we also missed the net a lot on some good chances,” Tavares said. “I don’t think they missed the nets as much as we did.”
Albany’s unorthodox defense made it difficult for the Bandits to get into an offensive flow, said Josh Byrne, who tallied two goals and three assists, matching the team-high point total of reigning MVP Dhane Smith, who had five assists but did not score a goal, along with Chris Cloutier (two goals, three assists).
“In a regular defense, it’s pretty much rights on lefts, and lefts on rights,” Byrne said. “They play the top side – very basic. Their defense is the total opposite – lefts on lefts and rights on rights. They try to take away underneath and give you the top side. They try to entice you into the middle … Most teams say, stay out of the middle. They say, come to the middle.”
Playing catchup for almost the entirety of the game fatigued the Bandits.
“It is tiring because you feel like you have to push and push and push,” Tavares said. “You’re not in the normal pace of the game because you are consistently trying to score a goal and you feel that extra pressure to be more aggressive toward the net.”
Naticoke was ejected after taking penalties for goaltender interference on his tying goal and fighting afterward. Albany scored its 10th goal toward the end of the five-minute power play.
Being down a man at the critical stage of the game taxed a Bandits team that Tavares said was less conditioned than the opponent.
“They looked that they were in better shape than us,” Tavares said. “A lot of guys with wide-open mouths huffing and puffing. I told the guys we need to get in better shape. It’s a lot of running up and down that floor.”
Buffalo couldn’t net a tying goal after Cloutier’s breakaway got them within one with 1:10 remaining. The fans showed stamina, however, loudly cheering in an attempt to try and will the Bandits into overtime, and giving referees the Jack Eichel treatment when the game ended in a scrum behind the FireWolves’ net.
The Bandits visit Toronto next Saturday before returning home to host Halifax on Dec. 30.
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.