The fans got their money’s worth, but John Tavares broke their hearts.
Tavares scored on a one-timer off a beautiful pass from Mark Steenhuis just 25 seconds into overtime, giving the Buffalo Bandits a thrilling 11-10 win over the Rock on Friday at the Air Canada Centre.
Goaltending was the story before Tavares, the National Lacrosse League’s career scoring leader, stole the show. The Rock, losers of four in a row, dropped from first place to the East’s fourth and final playoff slot, at 6-5, just 11/2 games clear of the Bandits.
Buffalo goaltender Mike Thompson, in for the injured Ken Montour, stopped 52 Rock shots. It was the second game in a row that Rock players were left scratching their heads. The team outshot Orlando 64-43 two weeks ago, but lost 16-12.
“I don’t know if this is hats off again to their goaltending or just some poor shooting,” a visibly angry Rock captain Colin Doyle wondered aloud in the downcast Rock locker room.
“It’s inexcusable. When you’re throwing (almost) 70 shots on net, you need to find a way to get 15-20 goals.”
Rock coach Troy Cordingley was slightly more positive but also is looking for answers.
“Teams don’t take us lightly anymore,” Cordingley said. “We had something to prove early in the year and we’ve got to get that back.”
The Rock’s defence, shaky of late, got better as the game went on and backup goalie Bob Watson was almost equal to Thompson, allowing six goals on 27 shots. However, starting Rock goalie Steve Dietrich, with little help from his defenders early, allowed five goals on 15 shots, putting the Rock in an early hole.
Behind Watson, the Rock rallied before a wild sequence of events eventually sent the contest into overtime.
With Watson pulled and 41.1 seconds remaining, Bandits captain Chris White took a debatable cross-checking penalty.
After a scramble, the Bandits appeared on the verge of putting in an empty-netter, but a Buffalo defender lost his stick while chasing down a loose ball just a few yards away from the yawning Rock cage. That allowed Toronto to head down the floor and Garrett Billings to put a shot past Thompson with just two seconds left.
Enter Tavares. Though the Bandits have struggled with the ball this year, they have been much better since getting Tavares back and are 3-1 with him in the lineup.
“You’ve got to be on your toes with him,” Watson said. “His record speaks for itself. Probably the best player to ever play the game.”
Tavares had three goals and three assists, while Steenhuis notched a game-high seven points.
Kasey Beirnes led the Rock with three goals, while Doyle had a goal and four assists.
As is often the case when two of the NLL’s most successful and heated rivals meet, the game had a definite edge. The Rock took the body at every opportunity on Steenhuis, an easy-to-spot target thanks to his customary bright orange shoes. Early on, Rock defender Drew Petkoff squared off with Buffalo’s Steve Priolo in a spirited bout.
Bandits coach Darris Kilgour passed his mentor, the late Les Bartley to become the league’s career winningest coach with 94 victories, but put the achievement in perspective.
“It’s a tremendous honour, but I know where my place is and it’s not above Les yet,” Kilgour said, pointing out he sits six championships behind Bartley, who also coached when seasons were eight games long, instead of 16.