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Bandits Notebook: The drama continues

By Budd Bailey

Say what you want about the Buffalo Bandits, but they sure know how to stage dramatic playoff runs.

They currently are on their third trip to the NLL Finals in three years, and all have been memorable. The 2024 edition certainly has been that, and it’s not even over yet.

In 2022, the Bandits literally went down to the last second in their two games with Toronto, only to win them both. Then in the final, Buffalo won a thriller (thank you, Nick Weiss) in the opener, before losing two straight games. The final game was particularly crushing, since it was played in the KeyBank Center.

In 2023, they scored 20 goals in the playoff opener against Rochester – a number that only had been topped once in team history. (That game was their very first playoff game in 1992.) The Bandits were completely dominant in sweeping Toronto in their next two games, to the point where they weren’t even trying to score at games end. And surely you remember last season, when they divided the opening two games in the final against Colorado, only to have Josh Byrne return from an injury and help power the team to an almost perfect performance in winning Game Three and the title.

Now in 2024, the Bandits played one of the most competitive and thrilling games in history, beating Georgia in the first round in overtime. That was the team’s first home overtime win ever and second overall.  Then came another sweep of the Rock, featuring a superb defensive performance and an unprecedent fourth-quarter comeback. That adds up to a 12-3 record during those three years.

It’s tough to guess what might happen in the coming games … but it probably won’t be boring.

“We’ve lost in the Finals in three games, we’ve won in the Finals in three games – it’s going to be tough this time,” Dhane Smith said. “It’s a little bit different this year because we went through different things. Two years ago we were the top team and expected to win, and we thought we’d win. Then we didn’t. Last year, we kind of won some close games and had some injuries, but found a way to win Game Three. This year has been crazy with injuries and new players, and just making the playoffs. Now as the fourth seed, we have to find a way to win.”

“This is why the game of lacrosse is the best game on the planet,” Byrne added. “You never really know what you’re going to get in every game. It’s going to be exciting for every single game. …. Every game, a team has a chance to win. Anything can happen. It’s exciting when the games go to the wire. It makes you dig deep.”

A little rest

The Bandits have nothing to do this weekend, thanks to a bye week in the playoff schedule. Albany’s arena was booked this weekend, so the league decided to simply push everything back.

The question is: Was that good news for the Bandits, or bad news?

On one hand, Buffalo hasn’t had a weekend off since mid-February – about three months ago. That’s 12 straight weeks of lacrosse, and it might be nice to take a rest. On the other hand, the Bandits have won their last seven games. This might not be the time to break up the routine.

Which is better? Ian MacKay of the Bandits doesn’t have any say in the matter, so he’ll just have to do what he’s told.

“It was a unique season in terms of our bye weeks,” he said. “Personally, I’m indifferent about it. It doesn’t bother me too much. The body could use a little bit of a break. But we’ve been hitting our stride. We have practice this weekend so we get up and down the floor a little bit. Even though it’s a week off we’ll push the pace a little bit. It’s the card that’s dealt. … We’ll roll with the punches.”

The stat machine

Veteran readers of this space realize that I keep plenty of my own statistics about the Bandits’ history. Here are a few facts about the team that you won’t read anywhere else:

  • You know that the Bandits came back from four goals down in the fourth period to beat Toronto on May 10. You probably don’t remember Buffalo’s biggest playoff collapse. It came on April 27, 2007 in Rochester. The Bandits led by a score of 12-9 with 1:20 gone in the fourth quarter. They lost the game, 14-13, on a goal by the Knighthawks’ John Grant Jr. in overtime.

  • Speaking of fourth-quarter deficits … the Bandits have trailed by at least four goals after 45 minutes in 43 games in their history since 2005. They have won two of them.

  • It took 39 minutes and 4 seconds for Toronto to score at home in the playoff opener against Buffalo on May 3. That’s the longest time in Bandits’ history that the scoreboard has read “zero” for goals from the start of the game – regular season or playoffs. The old mark was 34:28 agaisnt New York on March 17, 2007.

  • Matt Vinc set a team record with a save percentage of .930 in the May 3 win over Toronto. What’s more, his .862 number against the Rock two days later is No. 8 on the playoff list. Matt now seven of the top eight save percentages in a playoff game in team history. Can you name the others? Anthony Cosmo, Ken Montour and Mike Thompson are the winners.  

  • The Bandits’ averaged 13.2 goals per game in the regular season, a jump of 1.3 goals over 2022-23. But the defense was a bit more leaky, going from 10.6 to 11.8. The difference was about the same: this season’s +1. 4 to last season’s 1.3.

  • Nick Rose now has three of the five best seasons in NLL history in goals-against average. The latest came this past season, as the Toronto goalie was at 9.18. But he’s 0-6 against Buffalo in the playoffs in those seasons. By the way, Vinc’s best season – in Orlando in 2010 (9.51) – does not qualify for the top 10.

  • Toronto’s .833 winning percentage in the past season was the best by an NLL team in 10 years. Edmonton was at .889 in 2014. The only undefeated team in history was Buffalo’s perfect score in 1993.

  • Jeff Teat isn’t a finalist for MVP honors, but the New York forward did score 28.2 percent of his team’s goals (58/206). That’s tops in the league. No doubt missing the playoffs hurt Teat’s chances at earning some hardware. Byrne was sixth at 22.4 percent.

  • You might not know who has the NLL record (since 2005) for top save percentage in a season. It’s Doug Jamieson – Albany’s starting goalie in the Finals. Jamieson turned in an .829 number for New England in 2019-20.

  • I always like to figure out the players who had the most goals without the benefit of a power-play score. Sam LeClair of Philadelphia was the champion in 2023-24, finishing with 19. Ian MacKay had 12 such goals.

  • NLL attendance went up a touch in 2023-24, rising from 7,699 to 7,768. Buffalo (14,731 to 16,974 avg.) and Vancouver had big increases this past season to more than account for the slight jump. New York’s move to Ottawa ought to help next season, but there are weak spots elsewhere that probably need to be addressed, and soon.

  • Christian Del Bianco of Calgary had 19 assists without scoring a goal, tying his own league record. Of course, he’s a goalie, so he doesn’t have many chances to score. Robert Hope of Colorado was scoreless with 13 assists to lead the non-goalie division of this statistic this past season.

Coming up

Game One of the Finals will be on May 17 at 7 p.m. in Albany. A night (and a half-hour) later, Buffalo will host Albany in its only home game of the series. Tickets for that game in the 300 level are still available, but you probably shouldn’t wait to buy them. If necessary, the two teams will gather in Albany for Game Three on May 25. The new time for that potential finale has been moved to 5 p.m., so that it can follow the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Semifinal on ESPN2.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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