The Buffalo Bandits are now championship bound after defeating the Toronto Rock 12-8 in last night’s East Division Finals. A strong offensive effort highlighted by forward Corey Small’s three goals led the way for the orange and black.
“My success in scoring tonight comes from the work guys are doing around me,” said Small. “Josh Byrne and Jordan Durston are setting picks and getting me open. A lot of the time I’m just the guy at the end of the play that gets to tap it into the open net.”
From the very first whistle it seemed as if someone hit the fast forward button. On-floor ball movement, picks, and defensive slides all seemed to set the tempo for a high intensity game early on. The first quarter however, was a close one, lending to the unpredictability of this matchup. Dhane Smith (1g, 4a) was able to bury one nearly three minutes into the contest to give Buffalo the jump on the scoreboard. Adam Jones scored his first of four only a minute later, and just like that, things were all tied up.
Buffalo’s ball movement in the first quarter especially, was on point. They were getting the opportunities on the inside, but Nick Rose proved to be a brick wall for much of the first quarter, as did his counterpart in Matt Vinc. For Corey Small, it felt especially satisfying to finally have some success on Rose.
“He’s had my number all year,” Small said on recent history with Rose. “There was the one game earlier where I must have had 15 or 20 shots and he saved just about all of them. It was even on my birthday, he didn’t care,” Small jokingly added.
Things really started to heat up in the second quarter. Strong defensive performances proved too strong for either team to break, and neither team would find the back of the net until Challen Rogers (2g, 1a) buried a power play goal nine minutes into the quarter. What might’ve seemed to be a big momentum boost for the Rock, proved futile. Buffalo went on a five goal run across the second and third quarters, with Small completing his hat trick in that stretch. Now 8-3, Buffalo knew that Toronto was destined to answer back.
“We knew they were going to come back,” said Bandits coach Rich Kilgour. “Thank God we’re a mentally tough team and are able to get through it. We found a way to do it as a team, just like we’ve done all year.”
Toronto went on a four goal run following the Bandits streak of success. Kieran McArdle, Challen Rogers, and Adam Jones all found the back of the net at least once, with the latter chipping in two in a row.
With the Rock now within one at 8-7, Buffalo knew that it was their time to dig deep. To do that, Coach Kilgour said it was all about teamwork and depth.
“We don’t just rely on one guy to have a good game,” said Kilgour. “We rely on 17 guys to have good games, and when 17 guys have good games you see what happens. We answered the bell, and took the game over.”
And take the game over they did. Chase Fraser (2g, 0a) found his first goal of the night and soon after, Shawn Evans (2g, 2a) followed up with a goal of his own.
“Tonight was one those games where you have them, then they crawl back in,” said Evans. “We could have folded and let them back in it, but then we scored the next goal and started our own little run. Our offense is getting scoring from everybody.”
Kevin Brownell buried an empty net goal with just two minutes remaining, all but sealing their ticket to the NLL Finals. Buffalo now advances to the NLL Finals to face the Calgary Roughnecks. For a Bandits team that didn’t even qualify for the playoffs the past two seasons, getting back to the NLL Finals feels especially good for Captain Steve Priolo.
“It’s honestly all I think about,” said Priolo. “And I think that goes for everybody else in that locker room.”
Priolo said now is the time for redemption after the Bandits last crack at a title came up short.
“You get a chance like in 2016 [vs. Saskatchewan] and it grabs a hold of you,” Priolo said. “That’s all you want to do is take it to the next level and you don’t want to have the feeling you had after 2016. So we’re going to keep pushing.”
As the Bandits prepare for their battle against Calgary, Coach Kilgour might have summarized this year’s mindset the best.
“What’s best for the team? Those are the type of players we love,” said Kilgour. “If I have to take a ball right to the chest, then I’m taking a ball to the chest. If I have to go down and score, then that’s what I’m going to do. If I have to sit a game, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Bandits hold the number one seed in post-season play, giving them home field advantage for the upcoming NLL Finals against Calgary. Game 1 is set for May 18 at 7:30pm in downtown Buffalo. Coverage will begin at 7:00pm ET with NLL Playoffs Pre-Game LIVE on the NLL’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Game action will be streamed live on B/R Live and Fanseat.