By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Way back in the summer of 2018, goalie Matt Vinc was coming off a season in which he helped the Rochester Knighthawks reach the finals of the National Lacrosse League playoffs. But at this point in the offseason he was a free agent, and could choose any destination in the league.
Buffalo was a convenient spot for the resident of St. Catharines, Ontario. But could he win as a Bandit? After all, Buffalo had missed the playoffs in the spring of 2018 – and only one team in the league had a worse record.
“I think in those initial conversations in the summer with Chugger (Bandits’ general manager Steve Dietrich), we talked about talent and the direction we were going with draft picks. I knew we had a lot of pieces here. I wanted to put myself in a position to win. I think we’ve really grasped the coaches’ gameplans.”
Winning is exactly what happened to Vinc and the rest of the Buffalo squad in the 2019 season.
The Bandits defeated New England, 12-6, in almost systematic fashion before 16,559 in the KeyBank Center on Saturday night. Buffalo improved to 13-4 on the season, tying a franchise record for wins in a year.
But more importantly, the Bandits knew at game’s end on Saturday that the Georgia Swarm already had lost at that point in the night. That meant that Buffalo was guaranteed to finish the regular season with the best record in the NLL. That means home field advantage for as long as the Bandits stay in the playoffs.
“It’s huge,” Dhane Smith said about the first-place finish. “We haven’t done that since 2016 and it’s special. I knew from the beginning of training camp that we had something special. We came out and proved it. We had some lapses, but good teams find a way.
“Hopefully people can forget about the last two years. I know I have. Now we’re looking forward to the future.”
While the Bandits added quite a bit of youth this season, including three of the first four players taken in last fall’s NLL draft, it’s an old veteran who has made the biggest difference in the team. Vinc has been around the top of the NLL statistical lists in the major categories for goaltenders, and he’s generally been solid throughout the season.
It’s enough to put him squarely in the middle of talk as the league’s Most Valuable Player. A goalie has only won that award once in league history; Dietrich did it for the Bandits in 2006. Vinc has to be in the conversation to join his boss on a very exclusive list this season.
“He’s got our (team) MVP,” co-coach John Tavares said. “We’re the top team, so he’s got to be a candidate for MVP.”
Seconding that nomination is Corey Small, who said that he thought first place was possible here as soon as Vinc joined the roster. Small cited Saturday’s game as an example.
“He came up to me before the game and said, ‘I feel awful,’” the forward said. “Then he only gave up six goals.”
Vinc started a little slowly, as New England figured out a way to keep it close with goals during its rare opportunities. But eventually, Vinc and the defense came along and slammed the door. Buffalo only allowed one goal in the second half.
“Our defense and Vino have been unbelievable for us all year,” Smith said. “I feel it helps the offense. When our offense can’t put the ball in the net for a few minutes, our defense shuts it down.”
Meanwhile, the Bandits showed a great deal of balance in piling up 57 shots. Seven different players scored the first seven goals for Buffalo. Small eventually finished with a hat trick, while Smith had a goal and four assists.
“I wouldn’t want to be a coach, sitting guys,” Smith said. “We’re so deep.”
In fact, the Bandits felt they could afford to give Shawn Evans the night off as a healthy scratch. Evans is eighth in the league in scoring. It’s probably a little early to read a great deal into that, but we’ll keep an eye on that going forward.
“I thought we did the little things right,” Tavares said. “It amounted to a nice win. They are a transition team. We gave them zero transition opportunities. We won the transition game, and that was a bit part of the outcome. Our defense played really well, and our offense played pretty good.”
The Bandits thus are assured of playing a home playoff game on May 4 against New England – again. But first there’s a matter of going to San Diego for a meaningless game with the expansion Seals. Tavares said the team might rest a player or two who might need a week off because of minor injuries. Otherwise, thanks to a schedule with a couple of recent bye weeks, everyone else will be ready to go.
In the meantime, Small – who was on the worst team in the league in Vancouver last season – will take a moment to savor the moment.
“It’s pretty incredible to go 13-4 after last year,” he said. “It’s been a good journey so far.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)