Following Buffalo’s narrow 15-14 victory over the Colorado Mammoth in Game 1 of the NLL Finals on Saturday night at KeyBank Center, Dhane Smith summarized the game the only way he knew how.
“At the end of the day, good teams find a way to win,” he said.
Smith felt a weight off his shoulders after winning his first career game in the championship round, having been swept against Saskatchewan in 2016 and Calgary in 2019.
Another veteran who dealt with the heartbreak of those two finals losses was Nick Weiss, a transition player for Buffalo known for his defensive prowess instead of his goal-scoring ability. But, with less than a minute remaining in regulation tied at 14, Weiss delivered the game-winning breakaway goal for Buffalo.
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“Ian [MacKay] came up with a great loose ball, and I just remember seeing open floor,” Weiss said when recalling just his fourth goal of the year and first of the postseason. “Most of the guys on our team knew exactly where I was shooting that ball, and thank God it went in.”
Weiss received the pass from MacKay near midfield after a shot soared off the boards as Colorado looked to get off a shot before the end of the shot clock. Nobody stood in between Weiss and Mammoth goaltender Dillon Ward, resulting in Weiss burying a shot top right corner (admittedly his favorite) to give Buffalo its third in the fourth quarter.
Rookie Tehoka Nanticoke was another player for Buffalo who shined on lacrosse’s biggest stage as he was the Bandits Heavyweight Player of the Game. Nanticoke finished with a game-high five goals and two assists while completing the hat trick solely in the second quarter.
Nanticoke’s five goals tie his previous career-high that he set earlier this season against the Philadelphia Wings, making him also the team leader for goals in a game throughout the playoffs. Heading into the game, Nanticoke had just one goal and three assists in the postseason.
“Tonight was a game that I dreamed of since I started playing lacrosse and holding a stick with my John Tavares jersey on running around the backyard,” Nanticoke said. “This was everything I expected, and I loved it.”
Head coach John Tavares mentioned how it can be hard to balance being a rookie on a team with so many dominant offensive players and still producing at a consistent, high level.
“You could tell he played with more confidence. I think as a rookie, sometimes you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Tavares said. “But today, he just played his game, and he’s a great player that I expect to score three to five goals every game.”
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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).
“I feel like the last seven or eight games of our season our offense has become a real balanced force. We made a few trades in the middle of the season, and it seems like it took them a bit to gel, but they’ve really come together,” Mammoth coach Pat Coyle said.
After Colorado opened the scoring 55 seconds into the game, Buffalo capped off the first with four answered goals from Josh Byrne, Connor Fields, and Smith.
Fields connected on a highlight reel behind-the-back goal with 48.3 seconds remaining that juiced the Banditland crowd. Not even five seconds later, Dhane Smith caught an aggressive Ward at the top of the crease by surprise with a shot from long range that found the back of the net.
Both teams combined for 12 goals in the second quarter, exchanging blows as Colorado would answer back every time Buffalo created a substantial lead. Leading 8-4 after Nanticoke’s second goal of the night, the Mammoth poured in three goals in 56 seconds, cutting the deficit to one.
In the second half, each team would score six goals and disperse three per quarter, further developing into the back and forth theme their regular season matchup had at Ball Arena on April 2.
Robinson made it a 12-12 game early in the fourth, as Colorado was in a tie game for the first time since 2:14 in the first quarter. Cloutier and Byrne gave Buffalo leads as time was winding down, but Williams would respond with goals anytime it looked like the Bandits were going to pull away. Weiss’ goal with 51 seconds remaining would be the difference and sent Banditland home happy, knowing that they were just one win away from their fifth NLL title.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the favorite team to win. I thought our guys did a great job of fighting off a resilient team,” Tavares said. “I’ve been with this team since its inaugural year in ‘92, and we’ve made 11 championships, but we only have four to show for it. That needs to change.”