Heading into Week 9, the Colorado Mammoth (4-3) will host the Buffalo Bandits (3-1) on Saturday, January 25. Through the NLL seasons first eight weeks, Colorado has played the most games in the league at seven whereas Buffalo is tied for the least amount of games played at four. As it stands, Colorado is tied with Saskatchewan for first in the West whereas Buffalo is Halifax in the North but remain only 1.5 games behind leading the division with a game in hand.
There will be an argument to be made on Saturday about how schedule could play into an early season matchup like this against unfamiliar foes. Colorado has had the opportunity to get more game experience and to mesh stronger as a unit, which is crucial with as many rookies and new players joining the team this season. For Buffalo, their legs will be rested and with having as much time as they have had off, they will want to start fast.
Colorado comes into the game over what some would consider a successful weekend in Week 8, having a doubleheader in Vancouver and in Saskatchewan where the Mammoth lost a low scoring affair to Vancouver on Friday but came back Saturday night to win in convincing fashion against the Rush. The quick turnaround was good for the Mammoth to get the sour taste out of their mouths immediately from Friday’s loss to Vancouver and head into this weekend’s game with some momentum on their side.
In Friday’s game versus Vancouver, the Mammoth got the early lead at 1-0 but once the Warriors tied and eventually took the lead Colorado was unable to regain momentum. Looking at all stats outside the score, it would have looked like the Mammoth would have had the advantage. Colorado outshot Vancouver, recovered more loose balls, committed less penalties, and having won versus Vancouver at the beginning of January the tides would have felt to be in the Mammoth’s favor. Credit goes to Vancouver for making the Mammoth take difficult shots and almost using Colorado’s own game plan against them with stingy defense, great goaltending and taking opportunities on good looks on the offensive end. The Mammoth would eventually lose 5-7 in the lowest scoring game of the NLL season so far.
As mentioned, the Mammoth got their chance to rebound by playing in Saskatchewan on Saturday night. For Mammoth fans, the game started off in the worst way possible with Ryan Keenan burying a goal 0:35 into the first quarter to start a 3-0 run for the Rush in the first five minutes of the game. After the Rush got to 3-0, two of which came on the powerplay from illegal substitution calls on the Mammoth, it was Colorado’s game. Chris Wardle got the Mammoth on the board for their first goal of the game and was a frequent name on the box score scoring five goals on the night, tying his career high which was also at Saskatchewan in 2017. By halftime the Mammoth took a commanding 7-4 lead, including outscoring the Rush 5-0 in the second quarter. The momentum would stick with the Mammoth in the second half as first round pick in the 2019 NLL Entry Draft Warren Jeffrey netted the first goal of his career. Colorado outscored Saskatchewan 5-2 in the second half, which included a late goal by Saskatchewan’s Jeff Shattler with three and a half minutes left when the game seemed all but over. Multiple Mammoth players had big bounce back games. Dillon Ward made 53 saves on 59 shots, including 19 in the fourth quarter. Ryan Lee finished with seven points (1g, 6a), Eli McLaughlin looked like his old self again with seven points as well (3g, 4a) as well as aforementioned Chris Wardle. The Mammoth knew they had a big weekend with the possibility of taking two crucial division matchups but was able to salvage the weekend by going 1-1.
For Buffalo, the season has started slow mainly to the off and on schedule although they have maintained a 3-1 record, second in the North Division. They had four byes in eight weeks, so they are wanting to maintain some consistency in their preparations. Buffalo has a win across all three division, having beaten San Diego from the West, Georgia from the East and Toronto in the North. Their lone loss came to the undefeated Halifax Thunderbirds. Last week Buffalo got their win against Toronto in a North Division matchup at home in Banditland. A close affair throughout saw the Bandits winning eventually 10-8 including an empty netter with less than a minute remaining to seal the game. Lacrosse is a game of runs and Buffalo had the best of the night in the second quarter, scoring five in a span of 10 minutes to take the lead from Toronto. Matt Vinc looked like a goalie who has won the NLL Goaltender of the Year award seven times, having saved 54 shots out of 62. Rob Hellyer from the Rock was the only one who could consistently put the ball past Vinc, having scored five on the night. For the Buffalo offense, Josh Byrne and Chase Fraser led the charge with three goals each. Dhane Smith had a quite night by his standards only recording three assists on the night. Newly signed Garrett Billings made his Bandit debut and recorded one assist.
Having only played four games on the year, Buffalo doesn’t have many leaders in statistical categories by totals although they are third in the NLL in total penalty minutes at 76 minutes. To compare Colorado has committed 72 minutes of penalties in three extra games played. The Bandits have scored 49 goals which ranks 5th in the NLL in goals per game at 12.25 whereas the Mammoth are at 9.7 goals per game. Buffalo is last in the NLL at faceoffs at 35.2%, the Mammoth have faired a bit better at 45.6%. Both teams have played Halifax which lowered their percentage severely as the Thunderbirds rank first in the league at over 75%.
The key battle will be in net as Dillon Ward who is making a strong case for NLL Goalie of the Year is playing seven-time award winner Matt Vinc. Ward is leading the league in minutes and has missed only nine seconds of action this season. His 8.5 goals against average and 83.7 save percentage is second among goalies who have played at least 200 minutes, trailing only Warren Hill from the undefeated Thunderbirds. He has 308 saves which leads the league by 70 over Zach Higgins from Philadelphia. In the other net, Matt Vinc is having a year par for the course for his stellar career. He is allowing 11.36 goals per 60 minutes, recording 42 saves per game with an 80.8 save percentage.
Trying to score on these keepers are the rising stars of the NLL. For Colorado, Chris Wardle and Jacob Ruest are tied for the Mammoth team lead in goals at 12. Ryan Lee is leading the team in points at 31 (second in the NLL) including 21 assists (tied for third in the NLL). Eli McLaughlin is also getting his footing under him after missing a couple of games and has 23 points. Jeff Wittig, Kyle Killen and Will Malcom have been good supplement pieces to the keys for the offense from a forward point of view. The transition has also been good to Colorado with Jordan Gilles and Joey Cupido scoring four and five goals respectively. From the entire defense and transition, the Mammoth have gotten 14 goals. For Buffalo Josh Byrne and Chris Cloutier have found the back of the net the most with 10 goals and 9 goals respectively. Chase Fraser has only been active for two games this season but has netted six goals, good for third on the team. The big names in Dhane Smith and Corey Small have been great support pieces while netting their own goals. Smith leads the team in assists and points. Outside of Small all the before mentioned forwards from both teams are 27 or younger.
Expect this game to go back and forth but with lots of energy. Buffalo made it to the NLL Cup Finals a year ago and looked dominant at 14-4 with the core of their team still intact. Colorado has played mostly good lacrosse this season minus the loss last week at Vancouver, having a solid game plan for each game and making the necessary adjustments in game. Both teams have a balanced offensive approach where on any given night, a player could get hot. They each have tough defenses who will look to push the ball in transition and make it difficult for forwards to get good looks and both teams have league leading goalies to bring it all together on the back end. For two teams that will only see each other once this regular season, expect a good show.
Catch this game as well as every game through the 2019-20 NLL Season on Bleacher Report Live.