So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu. The National Lacrosse League’s regular season is over.
The 2019-20 NLL season standings will have an indelible asterisk on the upper right side of the 2019-2020 season. In small italics below the three-division standings, “Pandemic-Shortened Season” or some variation thereof will be indicated.
The Bandits end their regular season campaign 7-4 with a .636 winning percentage, which puts them in position for a possible playoff tournament spot when (and if) everything is free and clear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Again, the playoff tournament is in the discussion stage, so let’s push that aside and take a look at the Bandits’ shortened season.
If you think about the 11 games played, the Bandits’ 6-1 record out of the gate, which included five straight wins, was most impressive. And remember, the club was without the services of Chase Fraser and were adjusting to the loss of Shawn Evans, Jordan Durston, Thomas Hoggarth and Ethan O’Connor.
Too, the roster was not 100-percent healthy from the start. Oh, lest we forget the crazy bye week span of playing only two games in over a month.
“With all the time that we’ve all had recently, I’ve looked at every number, every game, gone back over things in my head, and gone back over game video, I think we had only three games when we had our A line-up and we won all three,” Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich said.
“When you couple that with the players that we were missing, the 7-4 record and the fact that we lost to Halifax by a goal, lost by a goal to Philadelphia – at least you can build a story and realize why we are where we are. I thought the guys battled, I thought we played well, and we were in lots of games.”
Following the sloppy 15-10 loss to Halifax at the end of December, the Bandits put together two very strong outings over Georgia and Toronto. In the Swarm game, Fraser, Josh Byrne, and Chris Cloutier displayed their offensive prowess with hat tricks, building a 12-3 lead. Goaltender Matt Vinc was in rare form against Toronto, consistently turning aside Rock shots.
Acquiring free agent Garrett Billings in mid-January helped in playmaking and was welcomed into the fold.
Colorado and Rochester tested the Bandits mettle, each coming back from 7-3 deficits and forcing extra sessions. Air Byrne netting seven in the mile-high altitude while Dhane Smith recorded an 11-point night (4+7) night against Rochester. Corey Small’s quick stick was perfect for the two back-to-back overtime winners.
The height of the team’s strong play came in Vancouver with an all-around 15-8 win over the Warriors. Everything was falling into place and everybody was in sync, even with Steve Priolo and Nick Weiss out of the lineup due to injuries.
But after the mugging in Toronto, which took Dhane Smith and Chase Fraser out of the line-up, the five-game winning streak came to an end and the team went 1-3 from there.
Matt Vinc was superb with his 46 saves in the strange 7-6 loss to Philadelphia. Small with two back-to-back goals woke the team up after being down 6-2. Byrne and Billings capped off a good night despite the loss.
With Dan Lintner and Frank Brown coming aboard for the start of the short second half showed immediate results, and, again welcomed with enthusiasm by the teammates.
Mitch de Snoo and Steve Priolo combined for 25 loose balls, Vinc made 54 saves, and the with a 9-2 lead over Halifax, held off yet another opponent surge for a big, big, Bandit win.
Despite a valiant effort in the fourth quarter to take a short-lived lead, the Bandits couldn’t beat Thunderbirds Warren Hill nor could they stop Cody Jamieson’s eight points, dropping an 11-9 decision on a cold and snowy day in Atlantic Canada.
With no Dhane Smith, and no Chase Fraser in the lineup since the Toronto game, were they considered deciding factors? I would say so since the club was 6-2 with them in the lineup. Too, with Priolo in the lineup, the Bandits only lost two games and the captain averaged 27 minutes on the field. Structurally on the backend, all of them were pretty consistent game in a game out considering how talented the offensive players are in this league. Matt Spanger is a perfect example of his consistent play.
“We brought him to camp a few years back, released him, and then he went to New England. We got him back when we moved Ryan Fournier. We put him in the lineup last year against Georgia and he played his way into a solid roster spot with more minutes and specific duties as well,” Dietrich said.
Was there a top-flight player this season? Ah, I would say Josh Byrne with 55 points (29+26), six hat tricks, and two successful penalty shots. Byrne, without question, was playing the best lacrosse of his career.
“It breeds well to have Chase and Dhane 100 percent, and then Josh continues on with the steep curve that he is on now to be one of the best players in the league,” Dietrich said. “You get drafted first overall for a reason because you have a lot of talent and people believe in you, and the kid has an unbelievable amount of talent, and he got the opportunity to show it.
“I think him playing field lacrosse this past summer against the best field players really helped and allowed him to use his athleticism that is really second to none in our league.”
Smith, with only eight games played, racked up 48 points and remains the ultimate playmaker. As Wayne Gretzky noted when playing with Mark Messier, “You become a better player with the people that you’re surrounded by.” From one MVP to another.
“You don’t realize how important he is in every aspect. From the dressing room to the bench to the floor as a field general, to of course being one of the best players in the game, until you don’t have him,” Dietrich said. “You don’t realize how important he is until you miss him. He is such a big part of our team and he would have made a difference.”
Bandits were 6-0 when scoring 13 or more goals – They need to score at least 13 every game. The team had 111 caused turnovers which means they need to take the ball away even more. And for goodness sake, hold the lead. They are pretty good at it with a 6-0 record after the first, second and third quarters.
Every team has to put up with a lot of adversity, and the Bandits had more than their fair share. One caveat from the adversity revealed the true character of this team, never losing sight of how strong they are and the will to win.
“Hopefully, in the future, we took all of our bad luck this year and it’s gone and will be OK moving forward,” Dietrich said.
The “unfinished business” mantra from last year’s championship run will be renewed next year. And if there is a chance for a playoff tournament in May, the Bandits will be healthy and ready to take it all. I’m sure The Great Dhane will back me up.
So, is it really time to say goodbye?