HAMILTON, Ont. – Chris Cloutier said the Buffalo Bandits had one thought at the forefront of their minds as they navigated a contested first quarter against the Toronto Rock in Game 2 of the East Conference Finals inside FirstOntario Centre on Saturday.
“Just knowing our goal,” Cloutier said.
Cloutier scored a season-high six goals, including three to fuel a dominant 7-0 scoring run during the second quarter that propelled the Buffalo Bandits to a 17-8 victory and a berth in the NLL Finals.
The Bandits defeated the Rock in two games for the second straight year and advanced to their third consecutive NLL Finals dating back to 2019. (The championship was not played in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID-19.) They will play the winner of the West Conference Finals between Calgary and Colorado.
Cloutier added two assists to finish with eight points and tallied a team-high 14 shots. Josh Byrne led the Bandits with 10 points (2+8). Dhane Smith added eight points (3+5) while Tehoka Nanticoke (three goals), Steve Priolo, Chase Fraser, and Justin Robinson all found the back of the net.
Matt Vinc made 33 saves.
“To be honest I’m not really too concerned about my own performance,” Cloutier said. “What’s really the moral of the story is how good our offense is coming together just as the playoffs are picking up. We’re clicking at the right time, we’ve got our full lineup in, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
The Bandits and Rock were tied 4-4 when Challen Rogers was assessed a five-minute major penalty for cross-checking Justin Martin with 8:57 remaining in the second quarter. Cloutier pounced on a rebound early in the ensuing power play to give the Bandits a lead they would never relinquish.
Buffalo went on to score seven goals – three from Cloutier and one each from Smith, Nanticoke, and Fraser – in a span of 3:49 to take an 11-4 lead into halftime.
The Bandits kept their foot on the pedal during the second half, outscoring the Rock 6-4. Captain Steve Priolo embodied their commitment on one fourth-quarter play when – despite a comfortable lead – he dropped to one knee in front of the Buffalo net to prevent a Toronto goal.
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) May 14, 2023
The performance was a testament to what Cloutier described as Buffalo’s goal – to win the organization’s first championship since 2008, yes, but also for a group that loves playing together to continue to do so as long as possible.
“Every game now is a potential of not being able to play with each other and that’s what’s pushing us, that’s what’s motivating us,” Cloutier said. “That’s what’s motivating us to play for each other, to have that second, third, fourth opportunity to keep playing.”
The Bandits lost the Finals to Calgary in two games in 2019 and to Colorado in three games last year. They used last year’s loss as motivation entering this season, earning the top seed in the NLL with a 14-4 record. They have clicked on all cylinders during the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by a combined tally of 51-21 in their quarterfinal win over Rochester and two wins over Toronto.
“We’re here to do a job that we haven’t been able to get done the past two times,” Cloutier said. “We’ve got to come with a different mentality and come ready to play and not take any games off, not take a minute off. We’ve got to get the bodies right and come ready to go.”
The Bandits left the FirstOntario Centre floor Saturday to the sound cheers from their own fans, many of whom made the drive down the QEW and sat near the visiting bench.
They’ll see each other back in Banditland with a chance at a title.
“That’s so special,” Cloutier said. “It’s happened a couple times this year where our fans just take over the whole entire venue, and when I walk out in an away barn and I hear our fans over their fans, it really gives me goosebumps and it gets me fired up to play.”