By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Bandits and Colorado Mammoth were tied, 14-14, with less than a minute to go at the KeyBank Center on Saturday night. Someone was going to be the hero of Game One of the finals of the National Lacrosse League playoffs. But who?
Nick Weiss, that’s who.
“(Ian MacKay) made an unbelievable play on a loose ball, … and I just saw open floor,” said Weiss – he of three goals in the entire regular season. “I started running, he gave it to me. Most of the guys on my team knew exactly where I was shooting the ball.”
Weiss had about half the floor to cover on the breakaway, which gave him the chance to plan his shot and ponder the situation.
“I had a little bit of time to think,” he said. “I saw the way he (the goalie, Dillon Ward) was standing, and it was there, and I took that exact shot, and it went in.”
Still, the game wasn’t over. There were still 51 seconds left. That wasn’t enough of a heart-stopping finish for the Bandits in this particular run. Eli McLaughlin had the ball right on the door step with less than five seconds left for Colorado, but Matt Vinc made the same. Time ran out as McLaughlin was still flat on his stomach around the goal crease, disbelieving that he couldn’t score the tying goal. And the 14,274 in attendance let out a roar that rivaled some other big moments in team history.
Final score: Buffalo 15, Colorado 14.
It was another day in the life of the Bandits, who seem determined to increase the business of cardiologists throughout Western New York as they try to earn their first league championship since 2008.
Weiss probably needed directions to the postgame interview room, since defenders usually don’t get that much attention. Coach John Tavares thought the veteran deserved a moment in the sun.
“He had a great game in Hamilton (two weeks ago), and he had a great game tonight,” he said.
The Mammoth have had all sorts of thrillers in the playoffs so far as well. It was exactly the type of game that Tavares was expecting.
“They are a relentless team,” he said. “They don’t give up. They keep coming. They have some great offensive weapons, and Zed Williams was a stud as we expected him to be (he had four goals and four assists). We have to figure out how to stop him.”
“We went on our runs, and they went on theirs,” Dhane Smith said. “They’re a great team. We know it’s going to come down to the end of the game.”
Both teams have been putting up goals lately, and the top players responded again in the spotlight of the sport’s biggest stage. For the Bandits, the biggest surprise was rookie Tehoka Nanticoke, who came up with five goals and two assists.
“It seemed like he was more confident today,” Tavares said. “He can score three to five goals a game.”
“It was the game that I kind of had been dreaming about since I was a kid,” Nanticoke said. “Honestly, there are a lot of emotions going through me. … This is everything I expected out of Banditland, and I loved it.”
As expected, Josh Byrne and Smith were a handful for Colorado as well. Both players had three goals and four assists.
Meanwhile, Williams didn’t even lead his team in scoring on the night. Connor Robinson finished with three goals and six assists for nine points, while Eli McLaughlin finished with three goals and five assists and Brett McIntyre added three goals and two assists. Add all of that up, and you’ll get seven hat tricks in all.
The teams didn’t really trade goals during the game as much as they traded runs. Buffalo erased an early Mammoth score with five straight goals, and that gave the team a lead that it held for the rest of the first half. But it was never a comfortable margin, and Colorado kept crawling back.
Down to the wire
It was more of the same in the second half. The Mammoth fell behind by such scores as 11-8 and 12-9, only to come back with three in a row to tie the contest with 12:41 left in the fourth quarter.
“I kept thinking, ‘They hadn’t taken the lead,’” Tavares said. “I would be cringing if they did. It would have given them that extra momentum. But they just couldn’t get there, and I think that saved us.”
Then it became a one-at-a-time battle. Byrne scored on an unbelievably hard behind-the-back shot from a relatively high position, only to see Williams tie the game with a little less than two minutes to go. That set up the frantic finish.
History teaches us that the first game in a best-of-three can be very important in the outcome of a series. Buffalo’s last two appearances in the Finals came in 2016 and 2019. In both cases, the Bandits had the home-field advantage in a best-of-three playoff. In both cases, they lost the opener to Saskatchewan and Calgary respectively. Buffalo dropped the next game as well and saw its finish come to an end.
“We finally got that weight off our shoulders,” Smith said. “After 2016 and 2019, we hadn’t won a game. We’re going into Colorado like it’s do-or-die. We can’t think that we have one more game after that. Yes, it would be nice to win at Banditland, but it would be even better to win and bring it home.”
After three absolutely thrilling playoff games, including a pair of last-second wins over Toronto in the previous round, it’s hard to know what the Bandits can do for an encore. They’ll try to top themselves next Saturday in Denver in Game Two. In the meantime, it will take a while for Weiss to have everything to sink in.
“We definitely play off the fans and the atmosphere,” he said. “It really doesn’t sink until the game’s done, and the place is rocking. For me personally, I need to relax and take my focus off playing – then it’s incredible. There’s no place like this, and that’s a game I’ll remember for a long, long time.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)