Goaltending and Defense – Keys to the Game
The idea that great goaltending and defense will win playoff games was on full display Saturday night. In front of 12,535 Banditland fans, the Bandits advanced to the East Conference Finals against Toronto with a 10-5 victory over the Albany FireWolves.
Just like the days of the hockey trap 27 years ago: It ain’t pretty, but there is artistry in it.
Here is just one of the many plays with goaltender Matt Vinc making a save. The Bandits’ tenacious defense capitalizes on a caused turnover and caps it off with an Ian MacKay goal.
“I think it is because a great goalie is like a great QB in football. If you have one, you have a chance every night. It is very difficult to win if you don’t,” said Bandits GM and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich. “And a great defense is like a great offensive line, and if playing to its strength, it’s like an engine and gets everything running smoothly.”
It’s About Vno
Having to play with a sour taste from the 2019 championship loss to Calgary, MacKay credits the close relationship everybody has on this year’s team, the leadership group of Steve Priolo, Kevin Brownell, Dhane Smith, and of course Vno in net.
“It’s about Vno in net and trust,” said MacKay. “Transition goals are important but get the opponent in a place where Vno sees the ball and limit their opportunities.”
No question, Vinc Saturday night saw the ball as the defense allowed the sight lanes to open, and Vinc made 45 saves on 50 Firewolves shots. That is a stellar .900 save percentage.
Thanks to the statistics work of Adam Levi, host of the Lacrosse Maxtrix Podcast, Saturday night’s performance was the fifth time in Vinc’s playoff career that he has allowed less than 10 goals and recorded 45 or more saves in the same game.
The seven-time goaltender of the year (soon to be eight) is now 22-12 in postseason action – an all-time NLL playoff record.
“As a goalie, you’re pretty much set in your ways. In a playoff series, the stakes are higher, and you think about it more throughout the week,” noted Vinc. Humble with the team and fans’ praise, Vinc focuses on teamwork and what needs to be done.
“We have to limit other teams scoring runs and remember what we’ve done well for those 15 wins.”
Is Vinc peaking at the right time?
“Matt is a special breed. I don’t think he ever peaks. I have never seen a goalie that is consistently great every week like he is. His physical and mental preparation is second to none. Quite simply, he is the best to ever put on pads,” said Dietrich.
Stand in for the Man
Too, when the shooting lanes get clogged, chances are the Bandits defensemen are in the way, as the club led the NLL in blocked shots by a sizeable margin with 118. Bryce Sweeting was second in the league with 21 soaked shots.
“I think our defense is very underrated. They have consistently been a top group all year. Steve (Priolo) is the unquestioned leader, but the rest of the guys unfairly go unnoticed. Week in and week out, they just go out, do their job, and give us a chance to win every game,” noted Dietrich.
Save the New York game, the Bandits defense and goaltending have been just short of amazing, considering the talent level of the NLL. If a photo speaks a thousand words, numbers speak for themselves. I’ve harped about it a lot, but +62 goals for/goals against is right up there in the NLL’s record book. Add those blocked shots mentioned above, and you’ve got a strong stable of defenders.
“Our whole unit has been playing well. I think having a bit of a mix is good, but I think the biggest thing is they all have full belief in each other, and it doesn’t matter who is on the floor; they trust that the job will get done,” said Dietrch.
Offensively, there is so much talent on this roster, and the mix is noticeably prevalent with passing, position, and shot selection.
Watch below from the faceoff following MacKay’s goal the teamwork, starting with the sweep of the ball by Max Adler, allowing Frank Brown to create a strong offensive set by the Bandits.
And, not to be outdone, how about the defensive move by Steve Priolo as he sprinted back to hold off an outlet break by Albany. Again, Vinc was there.
Here is a perfect example of how the Bandits need to attack in the postseason right from the get-go. And it starts with the strong face-off moves of Adler and, no slow horses here, fourteen seconds into the second half, the Bandits convert off a fine play from Kyle Buchanan to the Great Dhane.
Back to the Bunker
Back to the department of defense with the team captain, Steve Priolo, taking matters into the webbing of his stick and proving he is a genuine candidate for NLL defenseman of the year. All with the Bandits, the twelfth-year pro won the heavyweight of the game honors for his fine play, scooping 14 loose balls and blocking three shots, and keeping this team humble.
Here, Priolo bullrushes with two Firewolves all over him up the floor. He loses his stick but regains his composure and diligently passes along the ball, eventually turning into a score. But it was waved off as MacKay was caught on the front porch of Doug Jamieson.
So Very Good
So many good things in this game: goaltending, defense, transition, offense, you name it, every Bandit player contributed. And the Banditland crowd was of MVP caliber.
Here is another look at another strong offensive set by the Bandits, finished off by Josh Byrne with a fake and a quick twirl left for a score.
Topping off the spectacular goaltending was the penalty shot save Vinc made on former Bandit Ryan Benesch.
Game, set, no popcorn left, Bandits.
Now, it’s Toronto in a best of three series, which again starts Sunday, May 15, at KeyBank Center, 6 p.m. faceoff (Justin Bieber might still be around from his concert in the venue from the night before).
This, like most conference finals, is going to be a doozie. And for the Banditland fans, too, as they can take the one-hour drive up thew QEW to Hamilton to attend Game Two Saturday, May 21, for a 7 p.m. game. Game Three, if necessary, will be back in Buffalo Saturday, May 28, at 7:30 p.m.
The week-by-week schedule will work in favor of both teams.
“It is no different than what we go through all season playing one game a week. I think it will allow both teams to reset every game and make the needed adjustments for the next game,” mentioned Dietrich.
As witnessed by the three regular-season games between these two clubs, Toronto has a great mix of players at every position, including goaltender Nick Rose.
“Toronto is, in a lot of ways, very similar to us. They have great goaltending, and Nick Rose is finally getting the credit he has deserved for a long time,” said Dietrich.
“They have a great defense that is tenacious, physical, and gets out in transition, and the offense is incredibly deep. You can’t just try and shut 1 or 2 guys down because other guys will step up and beat you. It is going to be a great series against them.”
Broadcast Information Sunday, May 15
Game one of the NLL Conference Finals will be carried on ESPN+ and produced by TSN. Broadcast time is 6 p.m. Radio coverage will be on WGR Sports Radio 550, with the pregame show set for 5:30 p.m.
Randy Mearns, recently named MAAC Coach of the Year with St. Bonaventure, will join me in the booth. Dave Buchanan will be wireless and roaming the building for a full perspective on the game.
See you Sunday night after an early supper!