By Budd Bailey
Steve Priolo had every reason to feel discouraged and frustrated on Saturday night.
The Buffalo Bandits’ defenseman has been on the team since 2010. He’s been on some good teams – including a couple of that reacted the finals of the National Lacrosse League playoffs – and some bad teams, but he’s never been on a championship team.
That streak continued on Saturday night, when the Bandits lost a 10-8 decision to the Colorado Mammoth in the KeyBank Center. Priolo had given everything he had, as usual, to the team, and it was difficult for him to fall short again on what might have been the best team of his tenure in Buffalo.
“It hurts mostly because it was in front of our fans,” he said. “You feel like you let the city down. It hurts that way. We were good, we were bonded, and we had a lot of things going for us. I feel like I’m dreaming right now.”
Those fans had filled the building to the tune of 19,060, expecting to enjoy the rare sight of a Buffalo team winning a championship at home. Instead, they trudged home after watching Colorado play an almost perfect road game in taking its second-ever NLL title. That’s the phrase used when hockey teams come into an opposing building, let the other teams pile up a lot of ineffective shots from long range, and then counter-attack with timely goals to gain the lead and keep it. That’s what happened on Saturday night.
“That’s the way they play,” Bandits’ coach John Tavares said. “They’re really tough in the crease. They take away all the quick-sticks from the side. They do a good job of it. We tried penetrating it, and at times we did a good job of it. We had opportunities, but we didn’t put the ball in the net.”
“We knew the longer we went without (injured players) Ryan Lee and Eli McLaughlin that it wasn’t sustainable, so we were going to have to win games with our defense and goaltending,” coach Dan Coyle said. “Tonight they did a great job.”
Turning things around
The Bandits got off reasonably quickly, taking a 3-1 lead halfway through the first period. It was important for the Mammoth not to allow Buffalo to go on a big run early and let them build up a bunch of momentum that would be amplified by the crowd. Colorado did that, scoring the next three goals to go ahead, 4-3, early in the second quarter.
The Bandits were outscored, 5-2, in the second quarter, and were taking a ton of shots from long distance. If the goaltender gets a good look at them, he usually can stop them. It started to feel like it wasn’t Buffalo’s night around then.
“It was weird – they didn’t score a lot of goals, but they scored timely goals,” Priolo said. “They shut down our momentum. Offensively, on goals on transition, we can help out. We can do better. Our offense is very good and we trust them. I don’t have any answers why we only got eight. … We can all do better. It’s a very talented offense, but two bad games and here we are.”
“I don’t think the game could have gone any better in that sense,” Coyle said. “They had a few runs in the first game. You could feel the energy building tonight, but we stifled them after they scored. They cut that off. I’m still sort of shocked about how well things went for us. We had a plan, but there’s a lot of luck involved.”
The two teams didn’t manage to score much in the third quarter; Chris Cloutier of the Bandits had the only goal, and goalie Matt Vinc stopped everything in sight as he gave his team a chance to win the game. When Connor Fields took a pass from Dhane Smith for a goal only 27 seconds into the fourth quarter, the game was tied and the Bandits had some life.
But it only lasted for three minutes. Zed Williams put Colorado ahead for good with a shot from high in the slot that seemed to avoid about six players on its way to the net. It was the third of a four-goal night for Williams, who came out of nearby Silver Creek and had something of a coming-out party in the NLL Finals.
“Unbelievable,” Coyle said. “We knew from watching him, he was the MVP in the PLL last year. We knew what we were getting from him. He had a bit of an adjustment period because he hadn’t played box in a few years. It took him a good half of the season before he felt comfortable and we saw what he was capable of. … He’s a big man and a tough guy. I think he’s a tough matchup. Defenses have to adjust for him.”
Chris Wardle soon added a goal to go with five assists on the night as he capitalized on a defensive breakdown, and the Mammoth had a 9-7 lead with less than 10 minutes left. Colorado did a magnificent job of protecting that margin the rest of the way. Williams picked up his fourth goal, an empty-netter in the final minute, and that started the parade of fans for the exits. The Bandits never did lead after the opening seconds of the second period, and that made a big difference.
“When we were down two, the goal was to get it down to one in the third – which we did, and then we tied the game,” Tavares said. “We couldn’t seem to get the lead. It was the opposite of Game One.”
Ward earns hardware
Goaltender Dillon Ward was terrific in the Colorado net, making 55 of 63 saves – a save percentage of .873. He was named MVP of the Finals.
“He’s a goalie that adjusts well,” Coyle said. “They had a plan going into Game One and executed it well, and I thought he watches film. He knows how he plays, and he just changes it. Look at the subtle moments that I don’t think people notice. It’s amazing how many times the ball hits him (in the chest). People think they’re shooting badly, but he’s putting himself in position so that’s where it winds up.”
“He played really well, but his unit really stepped up and locked up all the back-doors,” Priolo said. “They were good.”
Meanwhile, the Bandits’ offense – which had scored in so many different ways through a variety of players during the regular season – was held in single digits for the second straight game. Considering it only happened once in the entire regular season, and that was in a meaningless season-ender, it was quite an achievement for Colorado. Smith only had a goal and two assists, Byrne went 1-3-4, Tehoka Nanticoke was held to an assist, and Cloutier and Fields had a goal each.
The Bandits will spend another offseason thinking about coming close to a title but falling just short. After winning three titles in their first five seasons, Buffalo’s seasons often have ended with tears instead of cheers. Their one title in 2008 is offset by losses in the final in 2004, 2006, 2016, 2019 and now 2022.
“We ran into a hot team,” Tavares said. “You have to give credit to our team. They played hard all year. Ward had a great series, and Zed Williams was hard to stop. Those two guys came through in the fourth quarter – Ward had some great saves, and Williams had the winning goal.”
Even so, the last word on this night should go to the winners. Coyle lost his top two scorers to injury, but still figured out a way for his team to win a championship. That gave him a title in Colorado as a coach and as a player.
“It’s awesome to win as a coach, but as a player I felt like I contributed more – that I had more say in the outcome,” Coyle said. “It’s the players who did this.
“But there was an awesome moment tonight. Our team doctor, Deb Jacobson, was out on the floor. We hugged after we won. We had hugged in 2006 (when he was a player), and it brought it all back to me. I’m so lucky to be part of two championships with the Mammoth and they both happened here.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)