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Bandits Take Game 1 — Look To Saturday for Back-to-Back Titles

On Friday night, the Buffalo Bandits took down the Albany FireWolves 12-8 inside MVP Arena in Albany, New York, to steal Game 1 on the road, and grab bragging rights in this fierce I-90 rivalry.

But don’t let the final scoreline fool you; this game had it all: beautiful goals, stellar saves, and a never-ending dose of physicality. The match was as close as it could get for the first three quarters, and I don’t think anyone inside the electric arena knew who was going to take the W after 45 minutes.

The game started with a bang. Only 35 seconds after the opening face-off, the FireWolves’ Tye Kurtz collected a rebound off a shot from his teammate Alex Simmons, and found a way to make the ball dribble past legendary Bandits’ goaltender Matt Vinc for the opening score. The goal was quickly challenged as there was the potential that not one, not two, but three FireWolves players could have had their toes on the white line, but it was deemed a good goal.

Everything that ensued within the first moments of this game was exactly what you’d want from a game that was opening up a championship series. It was a series of events that was fairly indicative of how the first three quarters would play out.

Mixed in between the constant smashing, banging, and pestering, goals were traded back and forth over the first 15 minutes. Despite both sides usually hard-to-solve defensive efforts (which we’ve seen all season long, particularly during the playoffs), the opening frame ended with the scoreboard reading 4-4.

Outside of Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith, Chris Cloutier shined in the opening frame and was a steady contributor for much of the game. Cloutier tallied three assists in the 1st quarter, and either scored or assisted on six of the seven Bandits goals through three quarters.

Now, Byrne and Smith were MVP finalists (with Josh winning this year’s trophy) because of their great play. But, their overall success since the 2nd half of the regular season has been due (in large part) to steady contributions on the offensive side of the ball. Tonight, Cloutier came through when his team needed him the most. After the Bandits’ victory, Cloutier emphasized that his success, and the success of his other teammates on offense, is created because of the enormous threats that Byrne and Smith pose to the opposition. With the attention focused on them, others on the team reap the benefits.

“I always say it all the time, we’re a super dangerous offense,” Cloutier said. “Obviously, we have Dhane and Josh – you could’ve split the MVP between the both of them – and, when you have guys like that, and everyone keys in on, everyone on our offense is super dangerous, as well.”

It should be noted that Byrne and Smith still both had incredible games on this night. Byrne posted three goals and four assists for seven points, while Smith tallied two goals and a whopping nine assists. Those nine assists pushed Smith passed his head coach, John Tavares, for the most postseason assists in NLL history.

Over the next two frames, this lacrosse game seemed to be trending towards a brutally physical chess match. Doug Jamieson settled in and allowed only three goals in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Vinc, Jamieson’s counterpart on this night, only surrendered two goals in that same stretch.

While the goalies were making almost all of the saves, every other player on the floor was fighting and clawing away at every loose ball, running full steam through strong picks, whacking away at each other for the sake of gaining possession in an attempt to give their team the upper hand. No one could grab that upper hand for the majority of the game. No team led by more than one goal over the first 45 minutes of this battle.

It was the kind of effort both coaches wanted to see from their championship-caliber clubs. It was the kind of effort that FireWolves captain Colton Watkinson was proud to see from his young guys, who were completely new to a moment this big. And, considering they were going up against a savvy veteran Bandits team that already has won the NLL Cup together, it was important for the FireWolves to see just how much they could seize a moment like this one.

Whether it was Ethan Walker, Tye Kurtz or Alex Simmons on offense – the trio combined for 17 of the team’s 23 points on the night, or the gritty efforts from defenseman Jackson Nishimura, who was credited with multiple caused turnovers and seven loose balls, it was hard to find FireWolves players that didn’t give it their all in this consequential game.

“They’re [the Bandits] a championship team, right?” Watkinson said. “They’ve won and been [here] the last four or five years, so they have a little bit more experience, and they’re ready for it – they’re ready for playoff lacrosse. But I think it means a lot that guys go out there and compete, run through checks, and battle through. Nothing phased them, especially our offense.”

By the 4th quarter, with the score at 7-6, it seemed as though the Bandits said, ‘Enough is enough.’ As we’ve seen from Buffalo’s team all season long, but particularly during the second half of the regular season and throughout this postseason, they’ve learned how to close out games in dominant fashion. Friday night was no different. The Bandits outscored Albany 7-2 in the second half en route to their 12-8 victory.

For Smith and the rest of the club, this was a redemption win. The FireWolves had beaten Buffalo in both of their meetings before this game, including when they squared off on this same MVP Arena floor back in December. This was the pivotal moment where the Bandits took back control of the rivalry. It meant even more knowing that on Saturday night, the Bandits will be playing in front of a sold-out 19,000 seat arena full of adoring fans.

“I feel like we had to win at some point here – why not tonight?” Smith said. “Obviously, our fans travel very well, and it was very loud in there. They had a great fanbase, as well, [but], luckily, we took advantage of Game 1. It’s not going to get any easier – the next one’s the hardest. But, we’re looking forward to the challenge ahead, and playing in front of 19,000 fans is pretty good.”

In a series like this one, where the outcome is so critical to a team’s title hopes, FireWolves head coach Glenn Clark is unfazed by the challenge of battling in Banditland on Saturday night with the possibility of Buffalo hoisting the NLL Cup. The FireWolves knew this was a three-game series coming into Friday night’s game, and that’s how they’re going to approach Saturday night’s match. All they are looking to do is focus on winning this one big game. Knowing how the games with these two teams have turned out this season, Coach Clark says they’re feeling pretty good about going into Buffalo and grabbing a win.”

“Very confident,” Clark said. “To be honest, venue doesn’t come into the equation for me. I don’t think – I mean, we play on the turf, it’s not like we’ve got to run through the crowd. So, we’re on the floor – I’ll play in the parking lot, I don’t care. Venue doesn’t matter to me, I think it’s just execution between the boards.”

Regardless of how confident the FireWolves might feel heading into Game 2 on Saturday at 7:30pm, the reality is that the Buffalo Bandits can win the NLL Cup. They can be the first NLL team to win back-to-back championships since the 2015 and 2016 Saskatchewan Rush. That’s a big deal, and the Bandits want to deliver that championship feeling back to the city of Buffalo.

This is their moment to shine again, and Albany is ready to spoil the party. Game 1 has set up an unpredictable contest that you’ll have to see to believe. Who takes Game 2 of the 2024 NLL Finals presented by AXIA Time is anyone’s guess, and that’s the way it should be when you have two juggernauts like these going head-to-head for the NLL Cup.