Game one delivered, and then some. The Buffalo Bandits defeated the Colorado Mammoth 15-14 on Saturday night at KeyBank Center in the opening game of the 2022 NLL Finals.
For a team that has long boasted one of the best transition games in the NLL, the Bandits’ transition was unusually silent throughout game one. Until the final minute of play, that is, when Nick Weiss got the breakaway of his life.
“[Ian MacKay] came up with an unbelievable loose ball,” Weiss described. “I saw open floor and started running. I had almost too much time so I had a little bit of time to think and I saw the way [Dillon Ward] was standing. I kind of have a favourite shot so I took that exact shot. I think most of the guys on my team knew exactly where I was shooting that ball. Thank god it went in.”
It was one of the biggest goals of his career.
“I don’t usually score goals like that; if I’m scoring goals at the end of the game it’s generally an empty netter, so that was a pretty cool feeling. Maybe I should have stuck with offense, eh boys?” Weiss said to Dhane Smith and Tehoka Nanticoke after the game.
They were quick to tell him to keep his defensive job, and it’s true, the Bandits have enough firepower up front as it is. Nanticoke led the offense with five goals and two assists, while Smith and Josh Byrne each scored three goals and four assists.
“This is the kind of game I’ve dreamed of since I was little kid playing lacrosse, holding a stick wearing a JT jersey running around the backyard,” Nanticoke said. “This is everything I expected from Banditland and I love it.”
Bandits’ head coach John Tavares thought both Weiss and Nanticoke deserved to be the team’s player of the game.
“Weiss had a great game in Hamilton and I let him know that, and then today, he had another great game and the game-winning goal,” Tavares said. “Nick’s a leader on the team; he doesn’t have an A on his jersey but he could easily have one. I wanted to give him the player of the game but I had to give it to Tehoka.”
He said that Nanticoke looked more confident today.
“He seemed like he was going to the net more often. Maybe being a rookie he doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes but today he just played his game. Today he didn’t hold back. I’d like to see him do that all the time.”
Colorado was, as Tavares put it, “relentless.” Though they only had one lead in the entire game – when Brett McIntyre scored 55 seconds into the first quarter – they were pesky, never letting the Bandits get too far ahead. That first quarter was the only one in which the Bandits had more than a one-goal lead by the time the buzzer sounded. They held Colorado to a single goal in the opening frame and led 4-1. Connor Fields’ #SCTop10 behind-the-back goal was the highlight of the period.
Twelve goals were scored in the second quarter. The Bandits kept trying to pull away, but the Mammoth kept pushing. Zed Williams and Eli McLaughlin each had two goals and three assists in the frame. Connor Robinson had two goals and two assists.
“They have great offensive weapons,” acknowledged Tavares. “They don’t give up. The keep coming and coming. I kept thinking… ‘they haven’t taken the lead.’ I was cringing if they did. I thought it would have given them that extra momentum but they just couldn’t get there and I think that saved us.”
Buffalo led 9-8 at halftime.
Nanticoke opened the second half with a pair of goals a minute apart. He softly floated in the air to sting the back of the net for his first, and then fought off a check, completed a spin move and threw several fakes before scoring the second.
Eli McLaughlin replied with a stretch goal in front of the net before Josh Byrne potted a highlight-reel behind-the-back goal for a 12-9 lead. Cue Colorado: McIntyre completed his hat trick, shooting around a defender. Chris Wardle then fired Tyson Gibson’s cross-crease pass past Matt Vinc while the crowd was screaming for a penalty after MacKay was taken down behind the play.
“We went on our runs and we knew they were going to go on theirs eventually,” said Smith. “We didn’t think it was going to be that close by any means. The refs let us play and maybe they got away with a few things but so did we. It was two great teams battling.”
In the fourth, Colorado scored three times, but each time they did, the Bandits had an answer to restore their one-goal lead. Robinson’s hat trick goal tied the game at 12, 2:19 into the quarter. Chris Cloutier replied with a far-side wraparound goal. Zed Williams tied the game at 13, but Byrne replied with a quick stick from a Nanticoke pass. Williams then tied the game again, this time at 14, scoring off a spin shot with 1:57 left to play.
Dillon Ward’s best save of the night came as he stopped Nanticoke while on the ground, having fallen into his net, which kept Colorado’s hopes alive. But as the Mammoth pressured in the Bandits end, they lost track of a loose ball as the shot clock expired and went for a regular line change, not noticing that MacKay had the ball in no man’s land. He passed to Weiss who scored Buffalo’s 15th goal of the game.
It was on Matt Vinc to hold on for the last few seconds, and he was able to stop McLaughlin’s crease dive attempt with two seconds left to play.
Buffalo takes a 1-0 series lead into the Loud House next Saturday, June 11th, but Tavares said that being favoured to win the series makes it harder to do so.
“I personally like being the underdog,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on the favourite team to win and I thought our guys did a great job fighting off a resilient team.”
If game three is necessary, it will be back in Banditland and its 14,274 fans on Saturday, June 18th. As much as the Bandits would love to win on home floor, Smith said they won’t be waiting for that to happen.
“We finally have a weight off our shoulder,” said Smith. “We’re going into Colorado like it’s do or die. We can’t think that we have one more game after that. Yes, it would be awesome to win in Banditland; that being said it would be even better to win in front of their crowd and bring home the trophy.”