Nine months to the day
The Buffalo Bandits’ upcoming matchup with the Colorado Mammoth this Saturday has more than one detail adding to the overall drama. Taking place nine months to the day after the game that ended the Bandits’ season last June, the NLL Finals rematch presents both a test and an opportunity for a Bandits team that has won six straight.
But forget the records, the trials, and the tribulations. This game stands alone with the heroics, the come-from-behinds, and the injuries.
I would say closure, too, in my book. But each person within the organization has their own feeling about what happened in the NLL Finals last June.
For many players, losing Game 3 of the NLL Finals on June 18 still lurks in some manner. The pain is gone, but the remembrance has remained prevalent throughout this 10-2 season.
Deep down, these players remember all too well their curtain call in front of 19,070 fans inside KeyBank Center, losing to Colorado two games to one, and the trophy that has evaded them the last three times.
And yet for some, Saturday’s game against Colorado is just another one on the schedule, wrapped around one of the area’s largest celebrations: St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Oh, and yes, March basketball Madness.
A lot has changed over the past nine months, with personnel moves and tougher play. Still, the team has proven its poise and commitment to fight through the challenges and persist onward.
It’s all about character
Moral strength, integrity, quality, abilities, competency, dependability, and ethical quality summarize this season’s Bandits roster.
All of the above includes unique blend for each player. This group is not off the rack; it has been tailored meticulously to complement each other. There’s still a long way to go with the remaining games of the regular season and the demanding rounds of the NLL playoffs still to come.
“There is still a lot of room for improvement. We are in a good spot right now, but no one in the room is satisfied,” said Ian MacKay.
“I think the more we are together as a team, whether traveling or in Buffalo, being together will only help us out and get closer, peaking at the right time.”
But Saturday’s game against Colorado, at home, has been circled so many times the creases left of each swirl will soon separate the calendar paper, falling to the floor at once.
Last Saturday’s overtime win against the Thunderbirds certainly was entertaining and refreshing to see (and hear) the return of Chris Cloutier (missed nine games) and Josh Byrne (out for three games).
“Impressive. It’s been pretty cool to see guys step up and take that head-on, even dealing with being down at halftime and having to grind out wins,” noted MacKay.
Saturday night could very well mark the appearance of Chase Fraser, who has been practicing with the club the last couple of weeks. Fraser, entering his fifth Bandits season, scored 32 goals and 24 assists for 56 points last year.
Fresh in presence, Byrne and Cloutier accounted for 70 percent of the goal-scoring last Friday night. When you add the seven apples from Dhane Smith, the trio accounted for 75 percent of the scoring overall.
But it was the character of this club that again rallied as a unit to come from behind for the eighth time Saturday night in thrilling overtime fashion, thanks to “Cloots.”
What did he say?
Coupled with some crazy flubs I had on the broadcast Friday night, you probably wonder why I sometimes say “Inspector Cloutier” after Chris’s goals.
It’s not an inside thing; it’s me showing my love for the late actor Peter Sellers and his multiple roles as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. Yes, it’s kind of far-fetched, and the movies were many years ago, but in some strange way it fits.
A name I hope to be able to call out more frequently is that of Nathaniel Kozevnikov. I expect we’ll see a lot more of him after recording his first National Lacrosse League marker. And it was a beauty.
True to the view, Friday night’s game was a goaltending duel with Matt Vinc and Warren Hill. Both made great saves throughout the game, including Vinc’s 18 in the first quarter.
Here is just one of the 48 saves Vinc made in the game, and at point blank from defender Graeme Hossack.
And while it didn’t count because the 30-second shot clock expired, this display of teamwork and character shows Cloutier’s second and third efforts through tough physical coverage. Watch the spin and diving shot, which beats Hill – but not the clock.
Everything. Everywhere. All at Once. The Bandits will be ready.
Dhane Smith (27+67=94) is still in the hunt for the NLL scoring title. He trails Jeff Teat (New York) by two points. The Great Dhane is still on pace for another record-setting season, averaging almost eight points per game, and is at 16+20=36 in his last five games.
Josh Byrne is tied for 12th in NLL scoring (28+32=60) and is 14+18=32 in his last five games.
Steve Priolo is fourth in NLL defenseman scoring (2+14=16) and first in assists, not to mention fourth in soakers with 14. The Bandits captain is second in franchise history with 1,166 loosie’s. Saturday’s game will be his 195th game, five away from tying Rich Kilgour at 200.
Goaltender Matt Vinc just recorded his eighth straight game with 40 or more saves. Vinc is number one in the NLL for saves (511), number one in wins (12), and tied for first in save percentage (.810%) with Calgary’s Christian Del Bianco. The eight-time goaltender of the year is two wins from tying franchise record currently held by Dietrich (47).
Quick tick: The Bandits have scooped 860 loose balls (Priolo with 92), recorded 128 caused turnovers (Nick Weiss with 20), soaked 63 shots and the club is shooting a very respectable 18 percent from the floor.
Colorado makes its way east with a 5-6 record, losing last week to Calgary 16-10. Injuries throughout the season have hampered the Mammoth’s progress, but there are still enough games to make a move in the standings.
Eli McLaughlin leads the team in scoring (21+24=45). Connor Robinson, a Bandits nemesis, is second with 20+19=39. And the always dangerous Zed Williams from Silver Creek is third with 20+16=36. Goaltender Dillon Ward, 5-4, sports a .780 save percentage.
Saturday’s game, featuring the Bandit players wearing St. Patrick’s Day uniforms, will be available on ESPN+, TSN+, and Altitude. Coverage will begin at 7:30 PM Eastern.
Radio coverage will be on 1520 The Bet & Audacy.com, with the pregame show starting at 7 PM. We will check in with Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle and player Connor Robinson. From the Bandits, coach Tavares will share his perspective, and Carter McKenzie will join us as well.
Randy Mearns will join me in the booth, while Dave Buchanan will provide updates and interviews from between the benches.