May 5, 2014

Smith: The Unsung Hero in Bandits' Upset Win 

By Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

TORONTO - John Tavares was the center of attention just before the NLL East semifinal started, Ryan Benesch stole the show by scoring seven goals and Anthony Cosmo was presented with the game ball by his teammates following the game. But one the unsung heroes of Buffalo's 15-13 upset win was Rory Smith.

How do you even begin to explain how a team that had lost eight in a row could eliminate a veteran-laden Rock club on a four-game winning streak and playing in its own barn?

Start with Tavares.

The all-time NLL scoring leader's career is drawing to a close. He is 45. Coach Troy Cordingley didn't want to see it end in Toronto so he delivered an inspirational pregame speech. To do it, he asked Tavares if he could wear his black and orange No. 11 while addressing the players.

''J.T. deserves to come back home and play in front of our fans at least one more time,'' Cordingley said while challenging Tavares' teammates to give him that opportunity.

''It looked good on him,'' Tavares said. ''He asked me if I was okay with it. He was talking about not letting this be my last game and not being able to play back in Buffalo. I said, 'Yeah, no problem, as long as people understand that it's not about me, it's about the team and it's about winning.' It was nice for me and obviously nice for the team to win and take another game back to Buffalo.''

He was jokingly quizzed during a postgame interview if Cordingley's premise might be wrong because he plans on playing another four years.

''I've never said I wasn't going to [continue to] play but if I'm not going to contribute and I'm not going to do much it's hard to have an old 45-year-old kind of dragging his butt around,'' Tavares replied. ''I'll see. Next year is a long way away and I just want to enjoy this season, get some more wins.''

With the score 10-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, Tavares took a shot at the tiny portion of net he could see behind goalie Brandon Miller. The ball went in. The first of Tavares' two fourth-quarter goals restored a Buffalo lead that would not be relinquished.

''He didn't have much to shoot at and he threaded it,'' said Cordingley. ''Unbelievable shot.''

Enter Benesch, stage left.

A mediocre regular season - 25 goals, his fewest in five years - led one reporter to point to his name on the lineup sheet before the first faceoff.

''Watch this guy,'' he told an accomplice in the press box. ''If he has two or three goals in the first half, Buffalo might win this game. He hasn't had much of a season but he's capable of breaking out in a big way. Keep an eye on No. 17.''

Sure enough, Benesch fires in four in the first half and another three in the second half.

''Benny is a premier player, right?'' says Cordingley. ''I know he had his struggles during the season but it was our biggest game of the season and he goes out and gets seven.''

The way the offense was clicking, it could have been J.T. or Shawn Williams or Mark Steenhuis other than himself filling the Toronto net with balls, a modest Benesch suggested.

''We moved the ball, we moved our feet, and fortunately for me I got some lanes and I got some shots. It could have been any one of us,'' he said. ''That's just what happens when we move the ball and stick to the game plan we had coming into the game.''

''He was unbelievable,'' Tavares said. ''Benny is a great goal scorer. He's a natural goal scorer. He's a great teammate. Our offense has struggle most of the year but the last couple of games we've shown some signs we can score and it was great to see Benny score seven.''

Enter Cosmo, center stage.

The six-foot-two redhead was the NLL Goalie of the Year in 2007 and seven years later he's still frustrating shooters. This was his first postseason win, technically. He'd been 0-7 with various teams, according to league stats, but he played a major part in a playoff win with the San Jose Stealth back in '07. They won 15-14 in Denver. He stopped a game-high 35 shots in 49 minutes. Backup Aaron Bold relieved Cosmo in the third quarter, playing a total of 16 minutes and making 12 saves. Bold is designated as the winning goalie on the official scoresheet.

Regardless, Cosmo's teammates made a presentation to him Saturday night.

''We gave Cossie the game ball,'' said Benesch. ''That's his first [playoff] win and, hopefully, not his last. Congrats Cos. It might have taken a while but, you know what, at least he got it so we're happy for him.''

''I'll take any win,'' says Cosmo. ''Being in the playoffs it was that much sweeter. With our late-season slide, things were going by the wayside. It was getting really frustrating. So, to get a win like this, especially over Toronto who put us out the last few times we met in the playoffs, it's a big lift for the whole team.''

We haven't forgotten about Smith.

The rugged defenseman is from Toronto but usually says that he is from Mimico, which is a lakeshore section on the west side of Canada's largest city. His two younger brothers who skate in the NHL went to Prague three years ago to watch him help Canada win the world indoor lacrosse championship.

One of the key aspects of Buffalo's upset win was the defensive work by Smith and others on Stephan Leblanc, whose 45 goals were second-most in the league through the 18-game regular season.

Leblanc had little room in which to work. They were all over him - Smith in particular. How many goals did Leblanc score in the semi? Zero. Benesch, the guy on the other team playing the same attacking position, got seven.

''To shut down Leblanc, who the ball typically goes to on their left side, was huge,'' said Cosmo, who added that credit should be shared with the likes of Andrew Watt who has had an influential impact on Buffalo's back end.

Smith was slightly groggy as he came down from the high of victory. Damon Edwards smashed him to the floor with Buffalo up 12-11 in the fourth quarter. Edwards got off light with a minor penalty for an illegal cross-check.

''I was a little disappointed that Rory Smith took a blatant high stick to the head,'' said Cordingley. ''It should have been a five-minute penalty. I don't care if it's a big playoff game or not, it's a five-minute penalty. Our message to the players was, 'Hey, look, the referees don't want us to win this either. So, let's beat two teams.' It just seemed from that hit on, we were in control. We were going to do whatever it took. We saw Rory a couple of shifts later block a shot. I'm tellin' you, there's a warrior.''

Cosmo wasn't surprised the Mimico Mauler stayed in the game.

''He's a tough kid. He knows how to take a punch, a hit, and this is the playoffs,'' said Cosmo.

Tavares, Benesch and Cosmo were great, but a tip of the cap goes to Rory Smith and the Bandits' defense corps, too. Benesch 7, Leblanc 0. Kasey Beirnes, Colin Doyle, Nick Diachenko and Josh Sanderson picked up some Rock slack but it wasn't enough.

''That's a tough thing,'' said Williams. ''Doyly had a few. Shooter (Sanderson) had a few but to hold Leblanc off. Obviously, that's a big key. That probably was the difference.''

Tavares agreed.

''It's a big reason why we won: their biggest scorer didn't score.''

Cordingley walked out of Air Canada Centre, one year after being fired by the Rock after being named 2013 NLL Coach of the Year, proud to be coaching the Buffalo Bandits.

''We answered,'' he said. ''We answered critics, we answered ourselves. The biggest thing is, we answered ourselves. We found a way to win, which the last eight games we didn't.''

''It feels good,'' said Williams. ''The way we finished off the season, we knew we were better than that. This is a fresh start.''


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