The stage is now set for Game 1 of the National Lacrosse League Finals, presented by Michelob Ultra, featuring the Buffalo Bandits and Calgary Roughnecks. Buffalo punched its ticket to the best-of-three series by defeating the Toronto Rock, 12-8, in the East Final, while the Roughnecks defeated the Colorado Mammoth, 8-4, in the West Final. Both teams field threats at every position, and this matchup is truly shaping up to be a showcase of the best that the lacrosse world has to offer.
The Bandits will have home field advantage throughout the series (hosting Game 1) after completing a 14-4 regular season and earning the No. 1 seed for the NLL Playoffs. This is a remarkable turnaround year for the orange and black, as they missed the playoffs the past two seasons despite a Finals appearance in 2016. Now under the leadership of coaches John Tavares and Rich Kilgour, the team is seeing a renewed sense of confidence.
“I think we are a better team now than we were then,” said Bandits forward Dhane Smith on the team’s growth since 2016. “It took us a lot of time and effort to get here. We’re going to have fun out there, but not take it for granted.”
Smith, who led the team in points with 102 (32G, 70A), said the factor for Buffalo’s success has simply been chemistry.
“It’s just sticking together, I think we’re a tight group this year,” said Smith. “We all have roles on the team, and we don’t try to go outside of those roles. We work together as a team.”
Working together as a team has translated to the stat sheet. Ten players on the Bandits roster have recorded double digits in the goal column, while the Roughnecks have just six. This offensive depth gives the Bandits a threat from anywhere on the floor, not just from Dhane Smith or Shawn Evans. True grinders like Jordan Durston, Thomas Hoggarth, and Chase Fraser are stepping up to provide secondary scoring. Calgary might be able to shut down an offensive player or two, but can they shut down the whole unit?
Those hopes will rely heavily on Roughnecks goaltender Christian Del Bianco, who has turned aside 242 shots and posted a .798 save percentage during Calgary’s current five-game winning streak.
The Roughnecks and Bandits met just once in the 2019 regular season, with Buffalo taking the 12-10 win in a fourth quarter rally to pick up its fifth consecutive home victory. Calgary pressured heavily at the end and had a chance to tie the game late.
“It was a one-goal game, we hit a post, they went down and scored the other way, and the game was over,” said. Roughnecks defender Mitch Wilde.
Roughnecks forward Curtis Dickson scored four goals against Buffalo and complied 35 goals and 46 assists in just 14 games in the regular season. He trailed only Dane Dobbie’s 115 points (47G, 68A) on Calgary’s roster this season.
The Roughnecks will look to pile up points on the power play, as they enter the championship series firing at 75-percent with the man advantage while Buffalo is clicking at 63.6 percent. Calgary is also killing off 87.5 percent of power plays, compared to the Bandits at 54.5.
Certainly one of the biggest storylines coming into this series is the battle between the pipes. Matt Vinc of the Bandits has been one of the most skilled goaltenders to guard the crease since earning his first starting job in 2008. The 36-year-old from St. Catharines, Ontario has won a league record six Goaltender of the Year Awards, with his most recent coming as a member of the Rochester Knighthawks last year. Despite his age, his numbers remain consistent. Vinc’s .803 save percentage in the regular season was the second highest in his 14-year NLL career.
Across the floor is a much different look as 21-year-old goaltender Del Bianco minds the crease for Calgary. Now in his fourth season as a Roughneck, and in his first season as the sole starter, Del Bianco’s 11.17 GAA is fourth-best in the league for goaltenders with over 500 minutes played. He is agile, acrobatic, and his work ethic is outstanding.
He’ll look to add an NLL Championship ring to his finger after this series against Buffalo.
Game 1 of the NLL Finals, presented by Michelob Ultra, is set for this Saturday at 7:30 pm at the KeyBank Center 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.