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Bandits and Mammoth for the NLL Cup: Take Two

The Colorado Mammoth and Buffalo Bandits have made it to the NLL Finals, but that’s not why they came to the party (just to be a participant). These two teams have worked tirelessly all season long with one goal in mind: to win the NLL Cup.

It’s been a while since the Bandits last lifted the NLL Cup (previously known as the Champion’s Cup). Buffalo last hoisted the cup in 2008. Since then, they have lost three NLL Finals (2016, 2019 and 2022). Last year’s NLL Finals loss came against the Mammoth. It is a loss that is still in the back of the minds of the Bandits’ players and coaches. Now they are ready for redemption.

For the second year in a row, the Bandits finished the regular season with a 14-4 record, but all those wins didn’t come easily. Six of their seven wins during the second half of the season were decided by one goal, and four of those games ended in overtime.

That being said, a win is a win. Bandits Head Coach John Tavares hopes that everything the team learned during those close game experiences will come in handy if (and that’s a big if) the games are packed during the NLL Finals.

“It builds character, and it gives the guys some experience in tight games, so when that situation presents itself again, they know how to deal with it,” Tavares said. “Those are playoff-type games with playoff-type atmospheres – I don’t know how many overtime games we had, but we had three or four wins in those games, and that’s the sign of a good team. We’re back in the finals, and I’m expecting close games against Colorado just like last year, and hopefully, we can find a way to win.”

In last year’s NLL Finals battle between these clubs, each of the three games were decided by three goals or less, and unfortunately, the Bandits came out with a loss in two of those games.

It’s hard to imagine the Bandits being involved in any close postseason games this time. So far during these playoffs, the Bandits have won 20-8, 14-5, and 17-8, and those latter two wins were against the 13-5, Toronto Rock.

Whether you want to give credit to Matt Vinc in between the pipes (he’s been excellent) or the deep offense consisting of guys such as Josh Byrne, Dhane Smith, Chris Cloutier, and others, or the defensive wall in front of Vinc, including the likes of Bryce Sweeting, Matt Spanger, and Steve Priolo, during this postseason, the Bandits have looked unstoppable.

“Guys have been shooting well and taking advantage of their opportunities,” Tavares said. “Defensively, guys have been doing their jobs and pressuring when asked to, soaking shots when asked to, getting into shooting lanes, and they’ve got Matt Vinc back there playing very well. We’ve also been getting transition opportunities as well, so things are clicking right now. But, we obviously have a big task ahead of us against Colorado.”

It’s hard to avoid how big of a task this could be for the Bandits, particularly if you look at recent results between these two. During this past regular season, the clubs went helmet-to-helmet in an inter-conference duel, which the Mammoth won 13-8.

In the last three matchups between the Bandits and the Mammoth, the Bandits have scored at most eight goals in one game. The Mammoth’s suburb goaltender, Dillon Ward, has played a significant part in that. According to Mammoth Head Coach Pat Coyle, one of the main reasons the Mammoth even have the privilege to compete in their second final in as many years is Ward’s efforts.

“He’s been our best player by far, and I think that’s what has to happen for us to win,” Coyle said. “I’m sure teams and people looking from outside our locker room are saying, ‘Without Dillon Ward, they don’t win.’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ That is a lot of what our team is built around.

“We’re still a team, and there’s still a lot of really important pieces to that, but there isn’t a more important piece than him, and everyone in the dressing room would agree with that.”

Many of Ward’s teammates have been trying to nurse themselves to total health over the long season. During the regular season, the Mammoth didn’t have one forward that played in all 18 games, and even Ward himself missed a game. However, in postseason play, most of the Mammoth roster has participated in every game, including the likes of Ryan Lee. Unfortunately, the Mammoth will still be without Joey Cupido for the Finals.

But, what has made the Mammoth successful this season, and in past years as well, is their “Next-man-up” mentality. This is a tight-knit group that does not want to disappoint one another.

“It speaks to how great of a system defensively that those guys have come to play,” Coyle said. “The fact the one guy can go out like that and other guys can step in. They depend on each other, which makes us strong, I think.”

“We just have to be us; that’s all we can do,” Coyle said. “We have to play stifling defense that we play and limit them to the shots that we want them to take, which is easier said than done.”

Similar things can be said about the Bandits, who were missing guys like Byrne, Cloutier, and Chase Fraser for ample time during regular season play. Still, everyone is healed and rested (mainly thanks to their “bye” week last weekend).

Looking forward to Games 1 & 2 of the NLL Finals, the Bandits earned the privilege to host the series’ opening game. In a best-of-3 series, having a home-floor advantage can be very impactful, especially when you’re playing in Banditland, which averaged over 14,000 fans per game in the regular season.

“We think, and I think most people can agree, that (not to be biased) that Buffalo has the greatest fans in the National Lacrosse League,” Tavares said. “They’re a big part of our team, and I preach to the guys how important it is to play for them. They spend their hard-earned money to come and see [the team] play, and we must give 100% every time.”

How these teams have been playing during the postseason, who knows who will come out on top in each game. Ball Arena, better known as the Loud House, is equally difficult to play in (if you’re the visiting team), so will that mean that this series goes to a third and decisive win-or-go-home game, or will it not make an impact?

The fact that Game 1 and Game 2 are without 48 hours of each other could play a significant role in the outcome of a Game 2 with everything on the line for one team. With that in mind, how will that affect Game 1? There are many questions to be answered, and we won’t have to wait long to learn the outcome of the opening games and potentially the series. As it stands right now, Saturday’s game is a big one, but Monday’s contest is even more significant.

“The truth is: someone is going to be in a position on that Monday to win the championship, and someone will be in a position to lose the championship,” Coyle said. “So, I’d like to think that travel and time are going to have very little to do with that because, when someone’s back is against the wall – one team is going to have their back against the wall on Monday, and one team is going to be ready to punch their ticket – so that game should be exciting. There won’t be any jet lag in anybody.”

It goes without saying, but it should be said anyway: The NLL Finals are must-watch TV, and for this year’s finals, expect potentially record-breaking numbers as Games 1 and 2 will be featured on ESPN2, with Game 3 (if necessary) airing on ESPN+. Up in Canada, all three games will be aired on TSN.

Don’t miss a second of all the action, starting with Game 1 in Buffalo at 7pm ET/5pm MT. Game 2 will begin at 4pm ET/2pm MT on Monday, and Game 3 will start at 7:30pm ET on June 3 if the series needs to go the distance.