The Buffalo Bandits’ title aspirations fell short Saturday night at KeyBank Center in a 10-8 loss against the Colorado Mammoth in Game 3 of the NLL Finals.
Just two weeks prior, Buffalo won the opening game on its home floor, 15-14. Colorado won two straight games to clinch its second championship in franchise history. The Mammoth’s previous title was a 16-9 win against the Bandits on the road back in 2006.
As the final buzzer sounded and the Colorado bench fled the field to swarm goaltender Dillon Ward, the Banditland crowd of 19,000 strong stayed to chant “Let’s Go Bandits!” one last time this season.
“[Banditland] showed up like they did all season long, but I’m happy for the guys that they got to play in front of a sold-out crowd,” Bandits head coach John Tavares said. “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t give them more to cheer for and that we couldn’t pull through for them because they are literally the best fans in the league.”
Buffalo found itself up 3-1 at the end of the first quarter due to three unanswered goals by Dhane Smith, Josh Byrne, and Ian MacKay. Similar to its fourth quarter in Game 2, Colorado’s offense found its groove and went into halftime up 7-5.
Goals were hard to come by in the second half, as Buffalo’s Matt Vinc posted a shutout in the third, but the Bandits offense could only muster up one in the frame. With a 7-6 deficit and one quarter remaining, Connor Fields tied the game 27 seconds into the fourth before Colorado scored three straight. Kyle Buchanan’s hat-trick goal came with 6.6 seconds remaining in regulation as the Bandits’ late-game heroics came too late.
“We forced [Buffalo] into situations I don’t think that they wanted to be in,” Ward said. “The shots that we gave up, for the most part, were shots that I was looking forward to facing for the outside, so credit to the defense for doing an awesome job in front of me.”
Buchanan (3+1) and Byrne (1+3) tied for a team-high four points, while Dhane Smith (1+2) finished with three. Chris Cloutier also scored the lone power-play goal for the Bandits during the third for his tenth in the postseason.
Vinc posted 37 saves, including 18 in the third quarter, to finish with a .804 save percentage. During the game, he also became the all-time leader in postseason games played with 39, passing his coach John Tavares with 38.
Ward was named the Finals MVP for his dominant play for Colorado. The Mammoth goaltender set a new NLL Finals single-game record with 55 saves, passing Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich’s previous mark of 54 set in 1997 with the Rochester Knighthawks.
“Their system trapped us a little bit and we kind of fed into it. So if you watch Ward, he’s way over the front at the top of his crease, and we couldn’t get him back onto his line,” Tavares said. “He played really well.”
Ward’s .873 save percentage in Game 3 boosted his numbers over the series to .783 percent and a total of 112 saves over the three games.
“Dillon knows where he gets scored on, and then he just changes how he plays,” Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle said. “He makes these very subtle switches, and it’s amazing how many times the ball hit him square in the chest because he puts himself in the proper position.”
Western New York native Zed Williams carried the load offensively for the Mammoth, with leading scorers Ryan Lee and Eli McLaughlin still not able to play.
Williams (4+2) had a game-high four goals and tied his teammate Chris Wardle (1+5) with six points. Wardle had an assist on each of Colorado’s first five goals and gave the Mammoth a 9-7 lead with 9:29 remaining on his lone goal.
Colorado also saw timely scoring from Dylan Kinnear (1+1), Brett McIntyre (1+1), Anthony Joaquim (1+1), Tyson Gibson (1+0), and Sam Firth’s first goal of his NLL career. Connor Robinson, who had six goals and seven assists coming into the game, was limited to just two assists in the first half.
“We’ve always preached this, but we get better the later a series goes on,” captain Robert Hope said. “I think our staff goes and does a really good job with just film and breaking down and tendencies of individual players and systems, so we made adjustments obviously in the second game and then a couple here today that made the difference.”
Buffalo will still be chasing its fifth championship in franchise history following its third straight finals appearance loss. The veteran group did take steps in the right direction this series, winning a game in the finals for the first time after being swept in 2016 and 2019.
Captain Steve Priolo, the longest-tenured player on the roster, says he isn’t satisfied until they bring a championship to Buffalo. “Tonight hurts because it was in front of our fans. You feel like you let the city and each other down,” he said.
When Tavares was asked what his message was to the team in the locker room after the loss, he kept it short and sweet.
“We need to keep plugging away and find ways to improve by sticking together and understanding what it takes to win a championship,” he said.