By Aaron Garland
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — It’s supposed to be a new era of Buffalo Bandits lacrosse, but for one night at least, the team’s play mirrored what led to the change.
Playing in its first game with a new head coach since 2003 Saturday night, with longtime coach Darris Kilgour fired in the offseason to make way for new bench boss Troy Cordingley following a disastrous 6-10 season, Buffalo failed its first test. Cordingley wants his team to be the hardest working in the National Lacrosse League, but in his eyes, it was far from that in a season-opening 17-13 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Wings at First Niagara Center.
“We were taught a lesson,” Cordingley said. “We were outworked. We were outplayed. We were out-willed. We were out-everything. Our talk was cheap. Talk doesn’t win you games.”
It’s the type of loss that became common last year, as the Bandits were the lone team left out of the NLL playoff picture — lacking offense, defense and goaltending. Whenever the team showed glimpses of any on Saturday, consistency didn’t follow.
On three separate occasions in the first half, when the game was mostly in reach, Bandits’ goals were responded with Philadelphia tallies.
Still, Buffalo hung in there, down 4-3 after one. Ryan Benesch, playing in his first game as a Bandit after an offseason blockbuster landed the star in Buffalo, scored the Bandits’ first goal and finished with two goals and an assist.
Undisciplined play got the Bandits into trouble in the second, digging themselves a hole too deep to escape. It was something seen for much of last year, too.
Kevin Crowley opened the quarter’s scoring with 4:09 gone, firing a screen-less shot from about 25 feet out for a power-play goal. It’s one goalie Anthony Cosmo surely would have wanted back, and it served as a symbol of his night before the veteran was relieved by Kurtis Wagar following Philadelphia’s 13th goal late in the third.
Cordingley said Cosmo will take the heat for the goals allowed, evidenced by a sarcastic cheer from the crowd being pulled, but it’s tough when a team gives up 61 shots as Buffalo did.
“What I saw is a guy in Cosmo getting bombarded with shot after shot after shot because we weren’t willing to battle for loose balls after rebounds,” Cordingley said. “Coz, yeah, maybe he let in one or two soft ones, but it’s easy to point the finger, and our defense wasn’t making players pay the price.
After Jay Thorimbert scored an unassisted tally to cut the Wings lead to 5-4, Jordan Hall took over.
The Philadelphia forward lit the lamp 22 seconds after Thorimbert, and proceeded to score thrice more in a near six-minute span. The one-man onslaught, which ended with 5:03 left on a penalty-shot goal, awarded because of simultaneous Buffalo penalties — to Rory Smith and Billy Dee Smith — while down a man already, extended the Wings’ lead to 9-4.
But just when it appeared Buffalo was imploding and Philadelphia could coast in cruise control, a pair of Wings’ penalties leveled the playing ground.
A roughing penalty by Joel White halted Philadelphia’s two-minute 5-on-3 advantage 1:03 in, and a minute later Kyle Sweeney took a slashing minor, putting the Bandits up two men for a minute. They made the most of it.
Shawn Williams, cutting to the left of Wings’ goalie Evan Kirk, caught a pass in transition from Steve Priolo and buried it with 2:25 left in the half for a power-play marker.
Mark Steenhuis followed that with a goal less than a minute later as Buffalo’s 5-on-4 approached its conclusion. Quick passing with John Tavares left Steenhuis, who tied for a team-high five points (2+3), wide open several feet from the net, going far side to close the gap to three.
Kevin Brownell’s determined individual effort closed a strong end to the half for the Bandits. He swatted the ball from a Wing player in Buffalo’s defensive zone, scooped it up and showcased impressive speed by outrunning everyone for a breakaway goal with 28 seconds to go.
The three unanswered goals less than two minutes revivified the crowd as well. It countered the unmistakable boo birds from the Bandit faithful earlier in the quarter that were elicited by the penalty calls on Buffalo.
But any momentum that may have been garnered during that stretch evaporated after halftime.
“To be honest, we have a plan and we didn’t stick to the plan,” Cordingley said. “You have to be on the same page and you have to be five guys out there playing and working the ball to create that one good opportunity. We didn’t do that (Saturday).”
There is some solace that can be taken despite a bitter loss, though. After all, Saturday was just the first chapter of a new book.
“Quite frankly, we were terrible (Saturday),” Cordingley said. "However, we’re lucky that it’s Dec. 28.”
Dhane Smith joined Steenhuis with five points, including a hat trick. Philadelphia’s Tracey Kelusky, who played the three seasons prior for the Bandits, haunted his old team with two goals and four assists. Hall led the Wings, scoring seven points with five goals.