By Budd Bailey
This one was for the history books.
The Buffalo Bandits hadn’t won a championship since 2008. They had lost in three straight Finals since 2016. Another loss in 2023 would have made it four in six years (remember the pandemic), and put the Bandits in the same area as the great Buffalo Bills’ teams of the early 1990s, who lost four straight Super Bowls.
But those thoughts are now gone forever. The Bandits are champions.
They did it in a very convincing way, smothering the Colorado Mammoth by a score of 13-4 before 18,296 in the KeyBank Center on Saturday night. That gave Buffalo the series two games to one. You’ll never be able to say again the Bandits of this era couldn’t win the big one.
Titles are always nice, but when they arrive after three straight losses in the championship round … well, it adds enormously to the level of sweetness. Dhane Smith, Steve Priolo and Nick Weiss – who were on all three of those losing finalists – know that better than anyone.
“I feel like 2016 I was a little kid – I didn’t understand it,” Smith said. “I was grateful that we got there, but I didn’t really get it. In 2019, we fell short. Each time we got a little better. Last year we got a win under our belt. This year, we won the championship. Things have a funny way of working, and I’m so thankful. I’d love to have four championships, but this one means the world to me.”
That applies to the front office too.
“It’s been my dream since 2001, when I was traded here,” general manager and assistant coach Steve Dietrich said about winning a title in Buffalo. “After 22 years, we finally did it, and it’s amazing. … This year, after the first loss against Albany, it felt different. It felt like the guys were dialed in. Even last Monday when we lost, the attitude in the room and on the plane ride home was just different. In practice, the guys were dialed in. We knew we were going to play well today.”
Tavares played on the first first four Bandits champions in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2008. Now he’s won a ring as a coach.
“It’s more stressful as a coach than as a player,” he said. “You feel a lot more responsible for the overall team performance. It’s my latest one, so it’s my best one at the moment.”
Obviously, offense and defense share the credit in such a one-sided outcome, and both did their jobs perfectly. But if anything, it was the defense that was the key to the win this time around.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Colorado coach Pat Coyle said. “I don’t want to take anything from them. I thought they played a great game. They came out like their lives depended on it, and I don’t think we matched their energy. It’s disappointing.”
The Bandits brought goalie Matt Vinc, acclaimed as the best to ever play the position, here to win a championship. It took a few years, but that box can now be checked.
Even better, Vinc played one of the best games of his career when it mattered most. He stopped (according to an unofficial count) 46 of 50 shots, a save percentage of .920. That’s ridiculous. No one has approached that number for the Bandits in a regular-season game since records started to be saved in 2005. Anything above .800 is quite good; anything above .850 is superb. But .920?
“The way we finished Game Two (a loss), I don’t think that sat well with anybody,” Vinc said. “That was the least amount of composure we could have had in Game Two. It shows the character in our locker room, not only on the defensive end but on the offensive end to come out with a performance like that. We did the all the little things right. … I’m the last line of defense, and it’s a pleasure to play behind that group.”
Vinc also had a ton of help. He usually had a good look at shots because the Mammoth didn’t have many quality opportunities. The four goals allowed set a league record for fewest goals given up in a game in the Finals. Priolo and Company saved their best for last.
Meanwhile, the offense was hardly upstaged. Most of the spotlight was on Josh Byrne, who had missed the first two games of the series because of an undisclosed injury. Byrne practiced on Friday and was activated on Saturday.
“It was one of the biggest emotional roller-coasters of my entire life,” he said. “Calling (Smith), bawling my eyes out and telling him I can’t play. … I tried to be there any way I can. It was frustrating. I never thought I’d have to sit out a championship game, especially because of an injury. The universe has a funny way of working, and fortunately we got to Game Three.”
He set the tone of the game by setting up a goal by Tehoka Nanticoke only 1:40 into the contest, and then he scored a goal from long distance with only three-tenths of a second left in the period. It gave Buffalo a lead that it would never relinquish.
Stlll, the score was only 4-2 at the half. But Byrne stepped right up and scored a pair of goals in the first 3:14 of the period that proved to be a huge moment in the game. He added one more goal later in the third quarter, and finished with four goals and three assists for seven points. Ex-Bandit Billy Dee Smith – an interested spectator at the game – described Byrne after the game as one of the great goal-scorers of all time, since he can score in so many ways and angles. The forward lived up to that.
“He didn’t miss a beat for someone who was hurt,” Tavares said. “I thought he had a great game.”
And once the Mammoth had to open the game up, they were more or less doomed. Buffalo closed by scoring seven of the game’s last eight goals. Buffalo’s nine-goal win was its biggest in a championship game in history. Even so, Smith never could relax until the clock had all zeroes.
“I was nervous the whole time,” he said. “Honestly, even when we were up by quite a bit, it didn’t feel real. Anything can happen. It was a crazy, emotional roller-coaster ride.”
The final moments of the first Banfits title win since 2008 … pic.twitter.com/wuL6B3acWc
— Budd Bailey (@WDX2BB) June 4, 2023
Here’s all you need to know about the Bandits’ offense in the playoffs: When the team had all of its top players on the floor, it outscored opponents by 39 goals in four games.
‘I don’t like to get caught up in goal differential because sometimes people think you have to win by a lot of goals, five or six, or something’s wrong,” Tavares said. “When you have a strong offense like we do, people expect us to win by five or six. We’re playing against great games, great goalies. You’ll have nights where they don’t go in – like tonight with Colorado. It’s easy to get shut down.”
Smith finished with a relatively quiet two goals and seven assists for nine points. He won Most Valuable Player honors for the NLL Finals. Chase Fraser was the only other Bandit to score more than one goal.
The end of one season always means the beginning of the next. In the Bandits’ case, the final buzzer started the speculation about whether Vinc will be back next season. He does turn 41 next week, and his legacy now seems complete.
“I don’t know if there’s a time to talk about this yet, because it doesn’t involve just me,” Vinc said. “It’s about our group, and I just want to focus on our group. These guys, our main focus is enjoying the moment.”
Dietrich added, “I said to him in line (as part of the postgame celebration), ‘You can’t retire at four, with four goals against. He laughed at me. He’s the backbone of our team, and we’re going to do our best to get him back. If he’s ever going to leave, this is a pretty good time to leave, but we’ll do our best. He’s a difference-maker for us, our ace in the hole.”
Meanwhile, the Bandits will have a rally at Alumni Arena at the KeyBank Center at 5 p.m. o Thursday, June 15, which will spill over later that night to Sahlen Field as part of the Bisons’ Lacrosse Night at the Ballpark. Maybe Smith will get to pick up the championship trophy once again, repeating the thrill of his lacrosse lifetime.
“It’s something you think about when you’re a kid,” he said. “Once I was a professional, my goal was to win a championship. I put so much hard work with these guys into this process. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been in this league for 11-plus years, and I had nothing to show for it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)