The Buffalo Bandits held on late to win the East Conference Finals over the Toronto Rock, sweeping the series 2-0. In what we have come to expect from these two teams, it was a battle all the way until the final buzzer, literally.
From the opening faceoff, the game would feature scrappiness and a whole lot of energy. From the first goal, a hustle play from Kyle Buchanan scooping up a rebound in traffic to beat Nick Rose, fans knew it was going to be a back and forth affair with opportunities coming at a premium.
Compared to Game 1, which ended by a finals of 18-17 in favor of the Bandits, the defense and goaltending made huge improvements and limited the runs for both teams. The teams would combine for over 20 blocked shots and 20 caused turnovers through the game.
By the half, the game was in the Bandits favor at 3-2, compared to 10-8 in Game 1. Both goalies, both near the top of the league in regular season save percentage and goals allowed average, would have over 20 saves by the half. Both offenses with all their weapons would be held at bay even with some good scoring opportunities. A big part of this was in part to the aggressive defensive play from both sides and getting into the shooters hands.
The second half was a bit of a different story. Tom Schreiber would get his first of the night on an outside rip on the run, to tie the game back at three. Off the next faceoff, Chris Cloutier would dip and dunk a goal to reestablish the lead for the Bandits. The Rock would tie the game back up a few minutes later as Latrell Harris ran the length of the floor in transition, dished the ball to Josh Jubenville, who bounced it pass Matt Vinc on the run.
The Rock would find themselves in a but of trouble through the remainder of the third quarter.
Mitch de Snoo would get called for a holding penalty on Chase Fraser and the Bandits offense took advantage of their man-up opportunity only 10 seconds into the powerplay with a goal from Dhane Smith, his first on the night. After the Rock took a shot in transition, the Bandits made a quick outlet down the floor to a waiting Kyle Buchanan and would get called for an illegal substitution to give the Bandits their third powerplay of the period. Chris Cloutier would score quickly into the powerplay to give the Bandits a two goal lead going into the fourth quarter.
The final frame is when the offenses picked up the pace, likely due to some tired defenders who slowed both offenses through the first 45 minutes. Also could have been some desperation from the Rock while the Bandits were trying to finish the game off to not have to play a third and decisive game.
Tom Schreiber would get the scoring started 49 seconds into the frame with a patented low to high shot that beat Matt Vinc.
Buffalo would go on their longest run of the game, scoring three straight courtesy of Dhane Smith, Chase Fraser, and Josh Byrne and extend their lead to the largest of the game at four with just under seven minutes remaining.
The Rock faithful would will their team back, going on a run of their own.
Rob Hellyer would get his first goal of the night and it was timely coming immediately off the Bandits last goal. A heavy shot ricocheted off the pipe, off Vinc’s backside and trickled into the net. Dan Craig would follow the Hellyer goal with a dip and dive across the crease to bring it to a two goal game only 19 seconds later. Not to be outdone, Hellyer would answer Craig’s goal in similar fashion with a leaping effort to beat Vinc 29 seconds later.
How quickly the tides can turn in the NLL as Toronto would score three straight in the span of 57 seconds of game time to be right back into it.
The Bandits would regroup and add a crucial insurance goal with a corner pocket shot from Chase Fraser with three and a half remaining.
Toronto would call a timeout with 1:23 remaining to draw up a play and take the extra man advantage by pulling Rose. After a couple of good looks, including a shot off the post, Tom Schreiber would score to bring the Rock within one with under a minute remaining.
The Rock would win the next faceoff to get a crucial possession late in the game. After a handful of shots, the Bandits would scoop up the loose ball but two Rock players would help cause a turnover to give them the possession back to Dan Craig. Craig would take it to the net with a clean look but Vinc would get just enough of the ball to prevent it from going in. The Rock would get the rebound with about three seconds remaining.
After a heavy wind up by Challen Rogers with three Bandits defenders trying to block the shot, he passed the ball back to Craig on the doorstep of the crease, would with a quick stick shot and get the ball pass Vinc as time was expiring.
As elated as Rock City was to see the ball go into the net, Bandits Head Coach John Tavares immediately pointed to the scoreboard. After review, it was determined the ball crossed the goal line after the buzzer, to the dismay of the Rock who fought so valiantly to get back into the game and try to force a Game 3.
Matt Vinc was named the number one star after doing just enough on his end to give the Bandits the win, saving 42 of 51 shots on the night. In his postgame interview when asked how long they get to celebrate before looking towards the final, Vinc said he was already thinking about it.
For the Bandits, this is their second straight NLL Finals appearance which occurred in the 2018-19 season. As the top seed heading into that series, they would lose to the Calgary Roughnecks in two games. The franchises last championship came back in 2008 where they beat the Portland LumberJax 14-13.
They will need to wait to find out who their opponent is, it will either be the San Diego Seals who have never made it to the Finals in their franchises history or the Colorado Mammoth who defeated the Bandits for the 2006 championship, their lone playoff matchup since the Mammoth relocated to Colorado in 2002.
Game 1 of the NLL Finals will be held in Buffalo regardless of opponent on Saturday, June 4 at 7:30pm ET in what is hopefully redemption for Bandits fans after their loss in the 2019 Finals.