The Buffalo Bandits are in the driver’s seat following their 15-14 victory over the Colorado Mammoth in Game 1 of the NLL Finals last Saturday at KeyBank Center.
Buffalo travels to Denver for Game 2 with the chance to sweep the best-of-three series against the Mammoth and win its first championship since 2008.
“We’re going into Colorado like it’s do or die,” Dhane Smith said. “Yes, it’d be awesome to win in front of Banditland, but it’d be even better to win in front of their crowd and bring home the trophy.”
Saturday’s championship game will be nationally televised on ESPNU beginning at 8 p.m. EST and can be heard on WGR 550.
The Bandits will be hosting a Watch Party at The Draft Room for fans beginning at 7 p.m. Click here for more information.
Players like Smith have had evident success during their Bandits tenure, but Saturday was their first win in the championship round. In 2016 against the Saskatchewan Rush and 2019 against the Calgary Roughnecks, Buffalo was swept in both series as the overwhelming favorite with home-floor advantage.
“We finally got our weight off our shoulders. I know since 2016 and 2019, there’s a lot of pressure on the favorite team to win. We did a great job fighting off a resilient team,” Smith said.
With those experiences in the back of their mind as motivation, Buffalo looks to prevail Saturday to win the franchise’s fifth NLL championship.
Here is everything you need to know.
We had some special motivation last Saturday from some of the team’s biggest fans… 🥺 pic.twitter.com/RxZe7DGJ9i
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) June 10, 2022
Game 1 recap
Similar to their back-and-forth matchup during the regular season on April 2, Game 1 of the NLL Finals certainly delivered.
Buffalo maintained the lead throughout the game, but a stingy Mammoth offense stuck around by responding to the Bandits every time it looked like they would pull away. Colorado created three ties in the fourth quarter, but Buffalo’s Nick Weiss scored the game winner with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.
Weiss collected the pass from Ian MacKay after collecting a loose ball near midfield, creating a breakaway opportunity in transition. Weiss’ game-winner was his first of the playoffs and fourth on the entire season.
Josh Byrne and Smith both had three goals and four assists, joining Nanticoke with a team-high seven points. Chris Cloutier (1+2), Connor Fields (1+2), and Chase Fraser (1+1) also scored for Buffalo.
Goaltender Matt Vinc finished with 40 saves, including a flurry of saves to maintain their one-goal lead before the final buzzer sounded. Vinc also became the first goalie in NLL history to eclipse 2,000 minutes played in the postseason.
Colorado continued to have a balanced scoring attack since the injury to star player Ryan Lee in the opening round of the playoffs. The Mammoth had four players complete hat trick performances, including Connor Robinson (3+6), Zed Williams (4+4), Eli McLaughlin (3+5), and Brett McIntyre (3+2).
“[Colorado] will keep coming and won’t stop fighting,” coach John Tavares said. “They have great offensive weapons, and Zed Williams was spectacular as usual. Going into the next game, we got to find a way to minimize his goals.”
“Loud House” advantage
Throughout his nearly 30 years of experience in the NLL, Tavares admitted that after Banditland, he would rate Colorado as the next-best fan base.
Inside Ball Arena, also known as the “Loud House,” Colorado’s passionate fan base isn’t the only thing Buffalo will have to adjust to on Saturday night.
Denver is 5,279 feet above sea level compared to the near 600 feet in Buffalo. The high altitude levels can be challenging for players not used to the elements as it’s harder to breathe in Mile High.
“I would say they have the next best crowd in the loud house,” Tavares said. “Again, they have an advantage with their great fans. They are used to the thinner air as it’s harder to breathe. When we were there in April, we were sucking wind a bit. It’s a tough place to win, and we lost there. Now we have something to prove.”
Tavares did note that he wasn’t sure if the altitude hindered Buffalo in their 15-14 loss on April 2 as much as it being the end of a long road trip. In an eight-day stretch starting on March 26, Buffalo played four games, including the final three on the road in Halifax, Philadelphia, and Colorado.
The Bandits swept the Thunderbirds in the home-and-home series before a 17-12 win over Philadelphia on Thursday, before the loss Saturday night to the Mammoth.
After the loss to Buffalo in Game 1, Coloradocaptain Robert Hope mentioned how the rowdy Banditland crowd didn’t impact the Mammoth as an outside perspective would’ve imagined.
“We always play at a loud rink when we are at home,” he said. “That’s what they call it the Loud House, so we were ready for it. I don’t think it altered our game plan or how we communicated. It got loud there a couple of times, but again it’s something we are used to.”
Rumor has it that Banditland’s favorite will be in attendance at Saturday’s watch party! 👀#LetsGoBandits
— Buffalo Bandits (@NLLBandits) June 9, 2022
Pick your poison
One of the keys to Buffalo’s historic season is its deep offensive group and the ability for guys to step up when they are needed most. Smith (10+19) and Josh Byrne (11+19) are the one-two punch that is relied upon the most, but the secondary group of scorers makes the Bandits so dangerous.
In Game 1 of the Finals, it was rookie Tehoka Nanticoke’s time to break out for the best performance in his young career, leading the team with five goals and two assists. Coming into the matchup, Nanticoke had just one goal and three assists in his previous three playoff games.
Chris Cloutier (7+7), Connor Fields (6+7), Kyle Buchanan (2+7), and Chase Fraser (5+3) have all come through in big spots for Buffalo throughout the playoff run. It’s a daunting task for Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle to pinpoint who’s due for postseason heroics for Buffalo.
“We’ll make some adjustments by watching the film, and we’ll be ready for it. They’re a real explosive offensive team too, so even if we got up a goal or two, they’re gonna make a push back,” Coyle said.