By Budd Bailey
Saturday’s game between the Buffalo Bandits and the Colorado Mammoth literally came down to the last second … as we all thought it might.
Buffalo was clinging to a one-goal lead in the opener of the NLL Finals in the KeyBank Arena. With about 14 seconds left, Matt Vinc had made a crucial save on a shot from Ryan Lee to keep Buffalo ahead and give his team possession. Running out the clock would have been the easy way to win, but the Bandits had to do it the hard way.
“That’s a full press, where they had the extra guy (with the goalie pulled),” Buffalo coach John Tavares said about the situation. “They had Dhane (Smith) pinned, and there’s not much you can do. … Dhane did a good job of throwing it down (the field). Unfortunately, it took a good bounce for them. We didn’t want to take a risk. We just wanted to kill the clock.”
The Mammoth moved the ball back into the Buffalo zone quickly. In the resulting scramble, Zed Williams came up with a loose ball behind the opposing net. Luckily for the Bandits, time was expiring right about the time that Williams left his feet to try to stuff the ball in the net. The game was over, 14,260 in the building could exhale with a scream, and Buffalo had escaped with a 13-12 thriller of a win.
The final frantic seconds of the Bandits win. pic.twitter.com/J2WoqoeR1X
— Budd Bailey (@WDX2BB) May 28, 2023
Even though the Bandits came into the game on a major roll, with three straight wins of at least nine goals, no one was thinking blowout entering this one.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Smith said. “We went on a run. They went on theirs. It comes down to little things. I felt like it was going to be a close game.”
“It was sort of what we expected,” Mammoth coach Pat Coyle said. “We knew it would be hard.”
Part of the problem for Buffalo was that Josh Byrne, the team’s regular-season goal leader, missed the game with an upper-body injury. That figured to disrupt the Bandits’ offensive chemistry as of late. Still, the team had played without Byrne for stretches of the regular season, and managed to survive if not thrive without one of the top scorers in the league.
“Throughout the year we had a lot of players who didn’t play a lot of games,” Tavares said. “Unfortunately, Josh was unable to play tonight. But that wasn’t the focus of our team. We asked, who was going to pick it up for us. Brad McCulley had a nice, big goal for us. The other guys have to pick it up.”
Without Byrne, it was obvious that Buffalo’s other offensive standout – Smith – needed to pick up his game and worry more about goals than assists. He did that magnificently at the start of the game, scoring three goals in the first 8:16 of the opening quarter. That helped give Buffalo a 4-0 lead, and Colorado looked unexpectedly helpless.
Then a funny thing happened. The Bandits cooled off, and the Mammoth found its game. Colorado had the lead down to 5-4 by the end of the first quarter, and took its first edge of the game at 7-6 with 6:15 left in the half. It was 8-7 for the Mammoth at halftime. Smith had become less of a factor, as the Colorado defense adjusted well to the circumstances.
“I wanted to remind them that these guys were relentless, and they never give up,” coach John Tavares said about his halftime message. “It was the situation that I expected to be in. We had to stay confident. Our team likes to win by a comfortable margin – four or five goals. As I said before the game, we have to learn to win by one.”
A new hero was needed for the Bandits, and Tehoka Nanticoke answered the call. He scored three goals in the first seven minutes of the game, as Buffalo jumped out to a 12-9 lead on the 5-2 run. Nanticoke sometimes looks like a puppy out on the field, rolling around as he grows into his body. But he’s effective when he crashes into bodies to open up some shooting range. The Bandits don’t win this game without him.
“We are ‘next man up’ through and through,” Nanticoke said. “I think we proved that all year. I don’t know how many one-goal games we had, but it’s no different in this series.”
Coyle thought the slow starts in each half were very costly.
“That’s this building too,” he said. “Once the crowd gets involved and this team is such a momentum team, I felt we came out of the locker room in the first and the third (quarters) flat. It’s hard for us not to look at those stretches as the difference in the game.”
Even so, Colorado wasn’t done yet. The Mammoth held the Buffalo to one goal in the fourth quarter (Chase Fraser’s third), and scored three goals of its own to get within one. But Colorado couldn’t score the equalizer in the final five minutes or so, and the Bandits had escaped with only their second win over the Mammoth in six meetings over the last two years.
Smith finished with five goals, while Fraser added three. Ian MacKay had a goal and six assists, Eli McLaughlin led Colorado with three goals and three assists.
The second game of the series has a couple of added twists with the opening result in the books. The game will be played in Denver on Monday afternoon, a very short turnaround by NLL standards. Yes, teams sometimes play on back-to-back days in the regular season, but having 1,500 miles to travel on the off-day might be draining.
“I think the one thing is, we’re both doing it,” Coyle said. “Sometimes in our league, it’s one team having to do while another team is waiting. I think that will be a story in Game Two – what team handles that adversity, and travels the best, and eats the best, and sleeps the best. But I think guys would play right away now if they had to.”
Then there’s the matter of Byrne’s injury, whatever it is. With one win in hand, the Bandits have less pressure to rush him back into the lineup. They could opt to give him more time off and save him for a third game if necessary. Tavares made it clear, though, that he would rather have Byrne in action on Monday if at all possible.
“We’ll have to reconvene and see how he is on Monday and make that decision,” he said. “As of today, he is on the IR. I want to win in Colorado with our best lineup possible. But if he’s not ready, he won’t play.”
And remember what happened last season. The Bandits won the opener of the best-of-three series here, but then lost the next two games. Buffalo’s challenge will be to prevent history from repeating itself.
“We’re not satisfied,” Smith said. “We know what happened last year, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)