The Buffalo Bandits are finally back on top of the NLL mountain.
Josh Byrne’s four goals and seven points in his return from injury sparked the Bandits offense, Dhane Smith had a game-high nine points and seven assists, and Matt Vinc made 46 saves to backstop a dominant defensive effort as Buffalo beat the Colorado Mammoth 13-4 in deciding Game 3 at KeyBank Center on Saturday night to win the franchise’s first NLL championship in 15 years.
“Banditland, we did it!” Smith said on-floor following the game. “We’re champions. The banner’s going up. We’re champs. Let’s go!”
Smith was named NLL Finals MVP after recording nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points in the three-game series to set a new league playoff record for points in a single postseason with 49.
“I don’t care about anything but this championship,” said Smith, the two-time NLL regular season MVP and three-time First Team All-Pro who also set a new league record for assists this season with 96. “I’ve said it before, you don’t get recognized for your accolades, you get recognized for those banners. And we finally did it.”
Smith, who began his NLL career in Bandits orange and black in 2013, was part of Buffalo’s long climb back to the peak after Finals losses in 2016 to Saskatchewan, 2019 to Calgary and 2022 to Colorado.
Bandits captain Steve Priolo and defender Nick Weiss also played in those championship series, only to come up empty each time until Saturday. It was Buffalo’s first title since 2008 and the fifth overall for one of the league’s oldest franchises, which also won in 1992, 1993 and 1996.
Priolo played a complete game in both ends Saturday with two assists, 14 loose balls, three caused turnovers and one blocked shot, while Weiss recovered seven loose balls and had two blocked shots.
“It’s dream come true,” Smith said. “Weight off my shoulders; weight off all our shoulders. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“I think that was our most complete game of the year and started from obviously the best goalie in the world, to our great defense, to our great offense and trusting the process.”
Byrne, who netted a team-high 43 goals for the Bandits during the regular season, missed the first two games of the Finals due to an upper-body injury. He finished the playoffs with 15 goals and 33 points in just four games.
“One of the biggest emotional rollercoasters of my entire life; frustrating, frustrating,” said Byrne postgame. “I never thought I’d have to sit out a championship game, especially from an injury. It’s just the most frustrating thing ever.
“Fortunately we were able to get to Game 3 and now we’re champs. After Game 2, no matter how I was feeling, I was going to play.”
Defending champ Colorado again pushed Buffalo to the brink by bouncing back to win Game 2, 16-10 in Denver, after the Bandits won Game 1 at home in a nailbiter, 13-12. Last year, the Mammoth won Game 3 in Buffalo.
But on Saturday, Colorado finally didn’t have an answer as Bandits netminder Vinc set an NLL record with his 30th career playoff win and Buffalo’s sturdy defense limited the Mammoth to four goals, also an NLL record for the least goals scored in a Finals game.
“Obviously the way we finished Game 2, I don’t think that sat well with anybody the last couple days,” Vinc said. “Shows a lot of character in our locker room, not only on the defensive end but offensive end, for us to come out with like that, stay out of the penalty box, just do all the little things right. Basically we couldn’t have scripted a better game plan, offensively and defensively.”
Chase Fraser scored two goals and an assist, Tehoka Nanticoke and Chris Cloutier had a goal and two assists each, and Matt Spanger, Brad McCulley and Max Adler also tallied for the Bandits, who were the NLL’s top playoff seed after finishing first in the East Conference with a 14-4 record.
Buffalo’s 2022-23 started with a season-opening loss on Dec. 3 to Albany, which would finish in last place at 3-15, a precursor to an ultra-competitive year across the NLL in which any team could win on any given night including the league’s newest expansion club in Las Vegas.
The Bandits only other losses during the regular season were against Rochester, which Buffalo easily overpowered in the Quarterfinals, Toronto, which the Bandits swept in two games in the East Conference Finals, and Colorado.
In Saturday’s Game 3, the Mammoth were led by Eli McLaughlin’s two goals and one assist. Connor Robinson also had three points on a goal and two assists while Chris Wardle also scored. Dillon Ward, last year’s Finals MVP, made 47 saves for Colorado, which entered the postseason as the 8th and last overall seed from the West Conference after an up-and-down 9-9 regular season on their path to try to be the first team to repeat as champions since the 2015-2016 Rush.
The 2023 playoffs also saw Panther City make it to the postseason in just the team’s second season and Rochester’s first playoff appearance since their revival. That parity across the league, reflected in five different champions since Georgia in 2017, helped set an NLL record for overall attendance at 1,165,528.
Attendance in Banditland on Saturday was 18,296.
Buffalo got the early jump on Nanticoke’s tally at 13:20 of the first quarter and would never look back, leading 2-1 at the end of the first and 4-2 at halftime.
It was the third quarter when the Bandits really got going, scoring four goals to extend their lead to 8-3 before adding five more goals in the fourth to cruise to the ultimate victory. It had been a long wait for Buffalo and all of Banditland.
“I feel like 2016 I was a little kid and didn’t really understand it. I was grateful we got there but I didn’t really get it,” said Smith. “2019, I felt like we had the team to do it. We fell short. Each year, we kind of got a little bit better. Last year, we got our one win under our belt. And then this year, obviously winning a championship.
“I’d love to have four championships, don’t get me wrong, but this one means the world to me. You dream as a kid to play professional lacrosse. Once I got to the professional level, my goal was to win a championship. I put so much hard work with these guys throughout this process. It wasn’t easy. I’d been in this league for years and I had nothing to show for it until tonight.”
Vinc, a three-time NLL Cup champion with Rochester and eight-time Goaltender of the Year, signed with the Bandits in 2018 with hopes of winning a title in Buffalo.
“Anytime you can win it’s special, but since that first time I decided to come to Buffalo this was what I wanted,” Vinc said. “That atmosphere, I can’t put into words what that last five minutes felt like. Being able to look up into the crowd and know exactly where your family members are, so many people that supported you along the way, having my kids in that crowd.
“I was one of those kids. I remember a lot of those cool memories, those banners going up. Being able to be a part of that is extra special. It’s been a long time for Banditland to experience a championship. and being able to be a part of the group that puts another banner up there, it gives you chills just talking about it.”
The Bandits’ John Tavares won his first championship as a head coach after four as a player. The normally stone-faced NLL legend even cracked a bit of a smile as the seconds ticked down.
In the end it was mix of elation, redemption and celebration for Buffalo, where the party started early at KeyBank Center and likely went late.
“I’m so thankful for this organization, for Banditland, for every fan,” said Smith. “They deserve it more than ever.”