John Tavares outlined the thought process in the Buffalo Bandits dressing room last Monday, shortly after they lost Game 2 of the NLL Finals against the Colorado Mammoth.
The Bandits had won Game 1 of their best-of-three series with the Mammoth at home and lost Game 2 on the road, the same script followed by the two teams last June.
“We’re literally in the same predicament that we were 365 days ago,” Tavares said. “If you asked me, anyone on our team, one year ago if we had the opportunity to play one game again for a championship, I’m sure we would have taken it.”
The Bandits seized the opportunity. Josh Byrne returned to the lineup after missing the first two games due to an injury and scored a game-high four goals to lead the Bandits to a 13-4 victory and their fifth championship in franchise history inside KeyBank Center on Saturday.
Byrne assisted on Tehoka Nanticoke’s goal to open the scoring 1:40 into the game, then buried a shot on the power play to break a 1-1 tie with one second remaining in the first quarter. He scored three goals during the third quarter as the Bandits began to create separation on the scoreboard. He dished a behind-the-back pass to set up a Chris Cloutier goal in the fourth.
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) June 4, 2023
Matt Vinc made 46 saves in his NLL-record 45th career playoff game. Dhane Smith was named Finals MVP after tallying 23 points, including a game-high nine (2+7) in Game 3. He led the NLL with 49 points (15+34) in six playoff games.
Smith is one of three Bandits remaining from the 2016 team that advanced to the NLL Finals but lost in two games to Saskatchewan, along with captain Steve Priolo and transition player Nick Weiss. The Bandits returned to the Finals in 2019 but lost in two games to Calgary.
The COVID-19 pandemic put the Finals on hold for two years, though the Bandits did not miss a beat. Smith, Priolo and company advanced to their third Finals in six years last season and seemed poised to hoist the NLL Cup after Weiss scored to end Game 1 in overtime. Their three-game series loss fueled them entering this season.
“We are hungrier, and we knew we needed to change a few things. Those changes started with our players and went to the top of the organization,” Smith said prior to the season opener against Albany.
“We know we need to be a little bit grittier and play a bit harder, and that will start game one. We all need to change our game, look in the mirror, and get going.”
The Bandits dropped the opener 11-10, a rare lapse in a 14-4 regular season that earned them the league’s top seed entering the playoffs. There they defeated Rochester in the single-elimination quarterfinal then swept Toronto in the best-of-three East Conference Finals.
They saved their most dominant effort for the finale. They outshot the Mammoth 60-50 and allowed a season-low four goals against, one in each quarter.
“The monkey’s off our back right now,” Vinc said afterward on ESPN. “I’m so proud of our group. It’s a huge night for Banditland.”