The Buffalo Bandits are back in the NLL Finals after booking their third consecutive berth with a convincing 17-8 win over the Toronto Rock in Game 2 of the East Conference Finals at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton on Saturday night.
Chris Cloutier scored six goals for the Bandits, including three during Buffalo’s 7-0 run in the second quarter that blew open a 4-4 game to an 11-4 halftime lead in front of stunned Rock fans.
“I’m not really too concerned about my own performance,” said Cloutier, who also recorded two assists for a total of eight points. “The story is how good our offense is coming together. We’re clicking at the right time, we’ve got our full lineup in, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
The Bandits, who were the league’s top-seeded team after a 14-4 regular season, are in the Finals again after losing to Colorado in 2022 and Calgary in 2019. The 2020 and 2021 seasons were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Buffalo’s last NLL championship came in 2008, one of four total for the franchise.
“We’re here to do a job that we haven’t been able to get done the past two times,” Cloutier said. “We’ve got to come with a different mentality and come ready to play and not take any games off, not take a minute off.
“That’s what’s pushing us, that’s what’s motivating us.”
The Bandits await the winner of the Colorado-Calgary West Conference Finals, which is headed to a deciding Game 3 next Saturday (9:30 pm ET; TSN/TSN+/ESPN+). The NLL Finals are scheduled to start the following week.
On Saturday at Toronto, Buffalo’s high-powered offense was led by Josh Byrne with 10 points on two goals and eight assists, while Dhane Smith notched eight points on three goals and five assists. Goalie Matt Vinc made 33 saves.
Tehoka Nanticoke (three goals), Chase Fraser, Justin Robinson and captain Steve Priolo also scored for the Bandits, who overwhelmed the Rock in both games of the East Conference Finals including Friday’s 14-5 Game 1 win in Banditland.
Buffalo has scored a total of 51 goals in three playoff games this season, including their 20-8 Quarterfinal victory over Rochester.
The Bandits broke open the game on Saturday after Rock captain Challen Rodgers was penalized five minutes for cross checking at 8:57 of the second quarter. Cloutier scored on the power play shortly after at 8:08 and Buffalo would not look back.
For Toronto, which was also swept in two games by the Bandits in last year’s East Conference Finals, it’s another offseason of unanswered questions. The Rock were 13-5 during the 2022-23 regular season, but their championship aspirations have been shelved for yet another season.
“This one hurts for sure,” said Rodgers. “Give them credit, they came out and showed why they finished first in the East and we have work to improve on. It was a long season, ups and downs. There’s some positives we can take away, but ultimately we want to win a championship and get by the East conference final. We fell short of our goal.
“Ultimately it was my penalty. That five-minute penalty I took put us in a deep hole. That one’s going to hurt for a while. We just weren’t able to stop their runs and build our own momentum.”
Toronto forward Dan Dawson, a 21-year NLL veteran, may have played the last game of his Hall of Fame career. The NLL’s all-time games played and assists leader, three-time Cup champion, 2009 league MVP and 2014 Cup MVP recorded three helpers on Saturday.
Dan Craig had three goals for the Rock, while Corey Small netted two goals and assist. Phil Mazzuca, Josh Jubenville and Brandon Slade also scored for Toronto.
Netminder Nick Rose was pulled for the second straight game and the Rock were again without star forward Tom Schreiber, the team leader during the regular season in goals (48), assists (68) and points (116; fourth in league; set NLL record for American-born players), due to injury.
Schreiber was also out of action for Toronto’s 15-11 Quarterfinal win over Halifax, but returned a week later to tally two goals and two assists in Friday’s Game 1 loss to Buffalo.