Saskatoon SK - In all fairness to the Buffalo Bandits who were hosted inside the SaskTel Centre by the undefeated (4-0) Saskatchewan Rush, even they wouldn’t have predicted tonight’s outcome. In the most stunning fashion, the Bandits were able to hand the Rush their first loss of the season and their first home loss since April 15th, 2017 -their 13-12 loss to the New England Black Wolves was their only home loss last season- to cap off a furious comeback to win in overtime 16-15.
The Bandits were heavy underdogs coming into tonight’s Twitter Game of the Week not only because they were the road team with a worse record than their opponents, but also because they were missing one of their most dynamic scorers, Callum Crawford (serving a one-game suspension), as well as seasoned-veteran, Mark Steenhuis, and the ever-improving young defenseman, Matthew Bennett, who were put on the injured reserved list this week.
The visitors played their role quite well early on as they were out-hustled, out-defended, out-shot, and out-scored throughout the first quarter. The Rush blitzed Bandits goaltender Alex Buque early and often. Ultimately they snagged four goals off him in four minutes and forced Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley to replace him for Zach Higgins. Despite allowing two more goals before the quarter was over, Higgins stepped up to the task and stopped numerous chances to prevent the game from running away more than it already had.
Down 6-0 on the road to a dominant team like the Rush, most teams would’ve crumbled and not recovered, but with last week’s heartbreaking OT loss at home to the winless Vancouver Stealth still in their minds, the Bandits had something to prove.
After last week’s loss, Cordingley said this of the Stealth, “We talked all week about how this team would be hungry. After getting embarrassed at home, they came and played extremely well. Obviously, they had something to prove, and they did.” It seems that hungriness begot hungriness tonight.
The Rush offense looked sharp in the first half. Ben McIntosh had a hat trick, Robert Church potted two of his own, while five other players scored as well. The defense was sharp, the powerplay looked solid, and Evan Kirk, who stopped all 11 shots he faced in the first quarter, stonewalled 22-25 shots.
Following a 6-0 hole, the Bandits scored two straight and three of the first four goals in the second quarter. But, almost as if they were teasing the opposition, the Rush netted two last-minute goals to restore the six-goal lead before the half.
It was obvious the Bandits still had fight in them throughout the early stages of the second half as they were stopping multiple transition opportunities from the Rush to keep the game within reach. However, whatever the Bandits did, the Rush seemed to have an answer. Mitch Jones cut the lead to five for the Bandits, only to be followed by a pair of Rush goals to push the lead to 11-4; then, each team scored a goal a piece to make it 12-5. Then, something happened that brought the nearly 15,000 raucous fans in the SaskTel Centre to a near-dead silence.
The Bandits rattled off three straight goals to end the third and cut the lead to 12-8. It was the first time all season that the Rush had allowed any team to score 3+ goals in a row. Shockingly to start the fourth and final frame, the Bandits would string together three more goals to bring their run to six in a row, making it 12-11 game.
One of the Rush’s most gritty defenders, Mike Messenger, gave his team some life when he scored, stopping the run to regain a two-goal lead, but there were more surprises to come. The Bandits most trustworthy offensive performer over the last few years, Dhane Smith, scored back-to-back goals to knot the game at 13-13.
Of course, the Rush answered back with two scores of the own with only two minutes remaining, but the Bandits still had a few tricks up their sleeves. In just one minute and nine seconds, the visitors tallied two straight goals including a long-shot laser from the top overall pick in this year’s draft, Josh Byrne, to force overtime.
Kirk, who had played very well all game couldn’t stop the offensive onslaught that the Bandits brought upon him. He faced 12 more shots than Higgins but let six more goals get past him. In all third quarters combined before tonight, the Rush had outscored their opponent 25-8; tonight they were bested 5-3. In the fourth, the Bandits gave a dose of the Rush’s own medicine, outscoring the home side 7-3 to force the extra period. The Rush had never been outscored like that in any quarter all season.
If you needed any more statistical proof that the game should have been out of reach even after three quarters, here’s this: The Bandits were 0-3 after trailing through three quarters, and the Rush were 4-0 when leading through three quarters coming into tonight before this meltdown.
In the OT, Higgins continued to make huge stops, giving his team chances to complete the incredible, improbable upset. To cap off the game of the year, Pat Saunders, who has been a healthy scratch for the last two games, picked up a bobbled-pass loose ball on the very edge of the crease, set up his shot, shimmied a little, and netted the ball behind Kirk for the game-winner.
The Rush are no strangers to last-second losses -think the final game of the 2017 Champion’s Cup. Not even eight months ago, Miles Thompson scored another OT winner inside this very arena to defeat the Rush and claim the Champion’s Cup trophy on the Rush’s turf. Tonight’s win won’t sting as much as that loss, but this loss hurt.
When asked if he and the team were more disappointed or upset about tonight’s loss, Rush captain Chris Corbeil said post game, “Yeah, quite disappointed, quite upset, a lot of frustration. It’s a game of momentum, and we clearly lost a lot of it in the second half and it sort of snowballed on us, and we ended on the wrong side of things.”
Coach Keenan, sounding much like coach Cordingley, said this after tonight’s loss, “They simply played harder than us. We talked about this coming into this weekend about how you can never come in thinking that your special and you’re better than someone because you have to put the work in. We clearly didn’t tonight. And then, when we were up by six, 6-0, 9-3 at halftime, you think it’s going to be easy and it wasn’t clearly.”
Keenan went to on to say, “We got out shot for the the first time since I don’t remember. We got out-played, out loose balled, out-ran, and they deserved the win and we didn’t.”
With seven days to recover from this shocking loss, the road won’t get any easier for the Rush in their next game. The team heads west to face one their Canadian rivals, the Calgary Roughnecks, with a redemption win surely on their minds. That game can be caught on NLLTV at 9:00pm EST on Saturday, January 27th.