Game 1 of the 2023 NLL Finals came down to the wire with the Buffalo Bandits hanging on for a 13-12 victory against the Colorado Mammoth at KeyBank Center on Saturday.
Buffalo opened up the second half with four-straight goals to reclaim a lead they would not relinquish.
Ian MacKay led the team with seven points (1+6) while Dhane Smith scored five times in a six-point effort. Tehoka Nanticoke (3+2) and Chase Fraser (3+0) also posted multi-goal games for the Bandits.
“Like I said before the game, we have to learn to win by one. It doesn’t matter if you win by five or one, it’s the same result,” head coach John Tavares said. “That’s all we wanted to do and ironically enough, we win by one.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win by five or six as well! But I think all the games are going to be [decided by] one goal. So every play matters. Every possession matters. Any time you get an opportunity to put that ball in the net, it makes life a lot easier when that ball crosses the goal line.”
Rookie defenseman Dylan Robinson, who had been on IR since Buffalo’s game on March 25, made his return to the lineup. However, Bandits forward Josh Byrne, who entered the Finals tied with Smith for the league lead in playoff scoring with 26 points, was placed on injured reserve before the game.
Tavares did not rule Byrne out for Game 2 on Monday, but he will continue to be evaluated in the hours leading up to faceoff.
With Byrne out, the offense found a new balance and proved to be unpredictable as five Bandits recorded at least three points each.
“We know we’re not going to win a championship with (just) myself or Josh. We need everybody. It’s a next-man-up mentality. Everybody needs to play well together,” Smith said.
“I know we’re not satisfied with even how we played tonight. We need to regroup and have a better game because we know the next one is going to be the hardest one to win, especially going into Denver.”
Matt Vinc stopped 31 shots to lead a staunch defensive effort from Buffalo. After a prolonged offensive set by the Bandits in the final two minutes, Vinc came up huge with one final stop with 13.4 seconds left to clinch the victory.
Eli McLaughlin (3+3) and Ryan Lee (2+4) each totaled six points for the Mammoth. Dillon Ward made 42 saves.
Buffalo also went up 1-0 at home in last year’s NLL Finals matchup between these teams. Colorado ended up winning at home in Game 2 and then in Banditland in Game 3 to claim the 2022 championship.
Buffalo is again one win away from claiming its first title since 2008, but has a much clearer understanding of what it will take to win the best-of-3 series this time around.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight. We went on our run. They went on theirs. It comes down to the little things and I felt like it was going to be a close game,” Smith said.
“We just got the edge there, but we’re going to look at film and come ready for Denver because we’re not satisfied. We know what happened last year and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Bandits got off to a hot start when just 40 seconds in, Chris Cloutier fed Smith for the game’s first goal. Smith scored four times in the first quarter. Buffalo held a 5-2 lead with 2:59 remaining in the opening frame before Colorado mounted a tremendous comeback.
The Mammoth scored twice in the final minute of the quarter to cut Buffalo’s lead to one and then went on a 3-1 run to kick off the second quarter – including a pair of power-play goals – and grab their first lead of the game at 7-6.
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) May 27, 2023
With 5:16 left, Brad McCulley tied the game for the Bandits, but the Mammoth responded with 2:26 remaining to take a 8-7 lead into halftime.
The Bandits were 7-3 during the regular season when trailing at the half, but had been ahead after 30 minutes in all three prior playoff games.
Buffalo jumped out on a 4-0 run to open the second half, led by two goals from Nanticoke, a shorthanded marker by Fraser and another from Smith in a span of 4:24 to make it 11-8.
Colorado would break up the streak to cut Buffalo’s lead to two at the 5:06 mark of the third.
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) May 28, 2023
Nanticoke completed his hat trick with 8:00 remaining to put the Bandits ahead 12-8 for the final goal of the third quarter.
Colorado pushed in the fourth quarter, outscoring Buffalo 3-1, including the final two goals of the game. Fraser’s third of the night, which came at the 4:13 mark to make it 13-10 stood as the game-winner.
The teams will meet again on Monday for Game 2 at Ball Arena in Colorado. Faceoff is at 4 p.m. on ESPN2 and ESPN+. If necessary, Game 3 will be played in Buffalo on Saturday, June 3 at 7:30 p.m.