By Ty Merrow
(Duluth, GA) – The Georgia Swarm (11-4) fought back from a five-goal deficit to reach a franchise-record 11th win with a 17-16 victory over the Buffalo Bandits (6-10) on Saturday. The tense game came down to the wire where goaltender Mike Poulin made a gorgeous save off a shot from Buffalo’s Dhane Smith in the final seconds to earn the win.
Georgia’s win ends the pattern between it and Buffalo where the visiting team has won for the past five games. The Swarm clinched the No. 1 playoff seeding in the East Division when Buffalo knocked off the Toronto Rock Friday night. That did not stop the Swarm from becoming complacent as the team still has its eye on finishing No. 1 overall in the NLL.
“We knew what’s at stake for them, and we knew that they were going to come out hard,” head coach Ed Comeau said. “Playing in this league the night before is never a disadvantage, especially at the start of the game when you have that step, and they played great. I was proud of the guys that we battled back to get in it. Disappointed that we kind of let them get back in it late in the game, but they’re a good team, and they’re playing to get a playoff spot. We knew how hard they were going to play. All in all, we’ll take the win, and ugly wins still count.”
Things started off rough for Georgia as Pat Saunders and Ryan Benesch opened the scoring, quickly putting Buffalo up 2-0. Ethan O’Connor got the ball seconds later and passed to Bryan Cole, scoring his first goal since Jan. 20. The Bandits stymied Georgia’s scoring, however, retaliating three more times and putting Buffalo up 5-1. Johnny Powless would score off a slick feed from Miles Thompson, Mitch Jones scored a power play goal for Buffalo, and Lyle Thompson capped the first quarter’s scoring. The goalies switched nets with Buffalo up 6-3.
Benesch started the second quarter off for Buffalo, and Mark Steenhuis followed his lead over three minutes later. Needing a momentum shift in Georgia’s favor, assistant captain Shayne Jackson scored two goals in 24 seconds, one a wind-up shot from away and another a diving shot under Davide DiRuscio, bringing the score within three.
Following Jackson’s example, Powless and Lyle would both score again, the score now 8-7 in Buffalo’s favor. Anthony Malcom and Benesch responded to widen the lead back up to three goals. With the clock winding down and Georgia looking to close the gap, Lyle would pass to Miles who scored with a second left. The halftime buzzer rang, and the score was 10-8, Buffalo.
“Just slow it down,” Lyle said when asked what the team did to turn the momentum in Georgia’s favor. “We came out pushing it, trying to run fast so that they couldn’t hit us, and that’s not exactly the ball we play. We want to control our tempo, and when we move the ball well, there’s no team that can stay with us.”
Georgia found itself down two men quickly in the third quarter, and some excellent defense helped limit Buffalo’s offense from exploding. Smith scored a power play goal to give the Bandits 11 goals. Buffalo then found itself in the penalty box for a time, and Georgia capitalized with three power play goals of its own, two from Powless and one from Kiel Matisz. Georgia had its first lead of the night, 12-11 with a minute and a half left.
Smith and Benesch quickly retook the lead for Buffalo. Benesch’s fifth goal of the night was a power play goal, giving Buffalo the lead once again. The end of the third quarter had Buffalo up again, 13-12.
Once again, Jackson shifted momentum back to the Swarm’s favor, catching a feed from Staats for the hat trick. Over a minute later, captain Jordan MacIntosh broke away in transition with the ball and passed to John Ranagan. Utilizing some fancy stick movement, Ranagan found the back of the net for the final lead change of the game. Miles would score next to put Georgia up 15-13, and DiRuscio was pulled out from the net as Anthony Cosmo replaced him.
Buffalo, already playing physical lacrosse, stepped it up another level. Jones would score on a power play to put the score within one. Returning the brotherly pass from earlier, Miles fed the ball to Lyle for a goal, and Lyle would score his final goal of the night with 6:11 min. on the clock, a whipping shot from way out.
The physicality of the game kicked up another notch as Randy Staats and Buffalo’s Matthew Bennett went to the penalty box after a scrap. Steenhuis would score in transition to bring the game within one. More Georgia penalties put the team man-down, and Benesch scored his final goal of the night with 49 seconds left. Buffalo had pulled within one, the score still 17-16 in Georgia’s favor.
Still man-up, Buffalo pulled Cosmo from the goal to get the extra attacker, and Poulin made the first of his final two heroic saves, clutching the ball with extreme determination as Georgia called a timeout with 17 seconds left. Lyle ended up with the ball on the other end of the floor, but a gang of Bandits players managed to finally wrest the ball from him. Smith ended up with the ball, but Poulin’s final fantastic save of the night sealed the deal (tonight’s play of the game below). Georgia improved to a franchise-record 11th win during the regular season with its 17-16 victory.
“For us to have a game like this tonight, I think it’s good for us,” Poulin said. “You don’t want to win or lose ugly games, you don’t want to be in ugly games, but that can happen. We have a bye in Round 1 (of the playoffs) and then we’ll have a week off. You never know what’s going to happen in playoffs. So, if we find ourselves in a dog fight like that in playoffs, we know that we can come back and do alright.”
Lyle and Powless led the Swarm offense with four goals and four assists each. Lyle added to his MVP-campaign and is two points away from 100 points in 2017 (currently at 38G, 60A). Miles followed with seven points (3G, 4A). Jackson’s momentum-shifting goals helped propel Georgia to victory, and he finished Saturday night with three goals and one assist. Jordan Hall was unable to find the back of the net, but he still recorded five assists. In addition to getting in a fight, Staats ended the game with six assists.
Playing all 60 minutes, Poulin faced 52 shots on goal. His 36 saves were highlighted by a game-high 14 shots in the fourth quarter where his most brilliant saves took place.
Georgia now takes to the road to face Buffalo for the third time this season. Playing in KeyBank Center, the two teams will clash for the final time on Saturday, April 22. Faceoff is set for 7:30 p.m. For the first time in team history, the Swarm will be featured during a LIVE Twitter broadcast when the two teams conclude the season series in the NLL Game of the Week.