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Are You Ready? | NLL Finals Primer

It all comes down to this. The 2024 NLL Finals Presented by AXIA Time begin this Friday evening when the defending champion Buffalo Bandits visit the Albany FireWolves at MVP Arena in Game 1. There’s no time off before Game 2, with the venue switching to KeyBank Center in Buffalo on Saturday night. If necessary, Game 3 will be on Saturday, May 25 at 5 p.m., but if it’s not necessary, we’ll crown a winner this weekend.

Are you ready?

More importantly, are the players ready?

“We’re feeling pretty good,” said FireWolves’ forward Ethan Walker. “We’ve been successful throughout the whole year even the couple of stretches where we lost games consecutively, we came together as a group and as a team. Just getting into the playoffs was a huge step for this group. We’re ready to go. We’ve been preparing for the last two weeks now and Friday will be an exciting time.”

The veteran Bandits, appearing in their fourth straight Finals, are ready, too.

“We have been here before,” said Josh Byrne. “At the end of the day, we know what it takes. We’re excited for the challenge of a young Albany team that will come out firing. We’re just going to stay calm and relaxed and understand that there will be ups and downs and keep riding those waves.”

It was a long season for both teams, and though they had equal 11-7 records, they got to the Finals differently. Albany burst out of the gate like a racehorse, winning their first six games of the regular season. They lost their next two, but then came back to win another four in a row for a 10-2 record. That’s when things went wrong: the FireWolves fell in five straight contests, bringing them back down to earth. But since then, they’ve beaten Halifax and San Diego in the playoffs and are looking exactly like the powerhouse team that beat the Bandits in both of their regular season meetings.

BUFFALO, NY – FEBRUARY 24: (Photo by Mike Hetzel/NLL)

Buffalo, meanwhile, meandered out of the gate, only winning three of their first six games. On March 1st, they weren’t even at .500. But as championship teams do, the Bandits found their stride, and went 6-1 down the stretch. They beat the Swarm in overtime in the Quarterfinals, and then easily dispatched the Rock in the Semifinals, looking like a team primed to go back-to-back.

Even though Albany beat Buffalo twice in the regular season (17-13 and 13-10), that was before the Bandits’ surge. Things have changed since then, for both teams. Each found their footing. Although the FireWolves might look like underdogs on paper, they have all the tools needed to win.

“We have a great group of leaders in the locker room, guys picking each other up,” Walker explained. “There are going to be mistakes made out there: it’s a fast-paced game and nobody’s perfect, and our locker room is really good at picking guys up and making sure we’re all on the same page for a common goal.”

Walker also said the team likes to play with speed on offense, and on the back end “we want to be big and physical and take space away from some of the guys on their offensive squad.”

That physicality might come as a surprise to the Bandits, who are counting on a more passive, but tricky, defense from the FireWolves.

“Their style of defense is different than anybody else in the league so we’re not very familiar with it,” said Dhane Smith. “It’s a defense that kind of forces you into the middle which is kind of unheard of. They’re not very physical typically, they keep one hand on their sticks… Everyone plays a similar style of defense except for Albany so it’s finding the ways that work and what doesn’t.”

If the Bandits can get past the FireWolves’ defense, Smith said they need to be sure to stay out of any extracurriculars after the whistle.

“We want to play to the whistle obviously but the refs aren’t going to give us any favours,” he said. “We’re playing physical right now, which is Bandits lacrosse, but we need to tiptoe that line and definitely be more cautious. We’re a great team when we stay out of the box. That said, our penalty kill has been unbelievable this year but when our offense gets in a rhythm when we’re clicking, it’s exciting to watch.”

Smith continued, “Albany has had our number this year so we’re… sticking to what we do best and playing our game because we don’t want to adjust to them, we want them to adjust to us.”

BUFFALO, NY – FEBRUARY 24: (Photo by Mike Hetzel/NLL)

When the teams met before, the Bandits didn’t have Paul Dawson or Connor Farrell in their lineup. Both defenders have added much to Buffalo’s back end. Dawson provides leadership on and off the floor, according to Smith, not to mention a big, physical body. He has seven blocked shots in the playoffs, second only to captain Steve Priolo’s eight. Farrell will get the Bandits extra possessions off faceoffs that they missed before he arrived, minimizing the effectiveness of Albany’s Joe Nardella at the dot.

As for the Bandits, they’ll have to pay special attention to Rookie of the Year candidates Tye Kurtz and Alex Simmons.

“They’ve got some maturity that you don’t really see in rookies,” praised Byrne. “There’s a good balance with Simmons being pretty athletic and being able to have good vision but also a feel for the game where when he needs to score he does. Kurtzy’s kinda slippery and pretty athletic and gets his hands free as well and is a pretty lethal shooter. He works hard and puts his nose down and does what he does.”

Although neither team is looking past Game 1 yet, the anticipation of hoisting the new NLL Cup is palpable within the locker rooms.

Albany is ready for their best season to date to pay off in a championship win.

“It’s a thought that’s obviously on everyone’s minds but for right now we’re just focused on Friday,” said Walker. “Getting through Friday; doing the best we can do Friday. We’re going to take this series one game at a time. Looking too far ahead would hurt us.”

Meanwhile, the Bandits aren’t satisfied. After losing in 2019 and 2022, going back-to-back would prove that they’re the real deal. Forward Chris Cloutier said a second win would feel just as good as the first.

“When you get to the top and you win, everyone’s first knock on you is that it was a fluke,” he said. “When you do it again, then it’s no longer a fluke. You prove to the rest of the world who you are and what you’re made of.”

Byrne was hesitant to call the Bandits a dynasty just yet, asserting that the team needs to win first before that can be considered. For now, he’s just enjoying the experience.

“Every single game, people have a chance to win. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first seed or the eighth seed, I think that’s why it’s such a beautiful game to be a part of. It makes you dig deep and enjoy the game.”

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