Buffalo wins Game 2 15-13 to clinch Back-to-Back Titles; Byrne is Finals MVP

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Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne – One of the Greatest Duos in Sports History?

We have never seen teammates put up the numbers that the Buffalo Bandits’ Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith have posted this National Lacrosse League season. It was, quite literally, record-setting.

Byrne completed the regular season with a league-best 135 points, which tied for the third-most points ever by a single player in one season (not including the playoffs). Smith was one behind him, recording 134 points, marking the fifth-most points ever by a player in one season. Their combined 269 points are the most tallied by a pair of teammates in regular season history.

So far, during the playoffs, the story has been relatively similar. Byrne has 17 points over three games, while Smith has 16. Byrnes total is tied for the second-most points this postseason, and Smith is sitting ranked in third.

On Friday night, when the 2024 NLL Finals presented by AXIA Time kick off at Albany’s MVP Arena, the Bandits’ dynamic duo of Byrne and Smith will be two of the featured stars in this epic best-of-three series between the Bandits and the FireWolves. You can guarantee that they will not stop making the case that they are the most exceptional offensive duo in the NLL right now.

But do they deserve to be considered one of the best duos in sports history, not just the NLL?

In 1991, the NLL’s Detroit Turbos’ Gary and Paul Gait led the league in points during the regular season. During the championship game, won 14-12 by Detroit, Gary would be named Player of the Game with three goals and three assists. Paul also posted a hat trick and added an assist for a nice measure. That season, there was no playoff, so whatever you did during the championship game was how you made your mark during postseason play. Its fair to say that the Gaits delivered when it mattered the most.

Since then, there have only been a few instances where teammates had such an impact on their teams performance in one season. Aside from that 1991 campaign, the other times teammates were #1 and #2 in points at the end of the regular season were the Baltimore Thunders Joe Hiltz and Gary Gait in 1999; the Gait brothers, again, in 2002 with the Washington Power; and the Saskatchewan Rushs Mark Matthews and Robert Church in 2018 . Matthews also led the NLL in points tallied during that 2018 postseason.

Taking a look at things from a Buffalo-centric point of view, for a franchise as decorated as the Bandits, this isn’t the first time they’ve had an incredibly talented set of teammates. Going back to their inaugural season in 1992, then-player (now Bandits head coach) John Tavares and Derek Keenan were starring in Buffalo. Believe it or not, Keenan, not Tavares, won Rookie of the Year that season. They would shine as the teams best offensive duo for the clubs first two seasons.

Over the next decade-plus, Tavares continued to lead the way in point totals, but he didn’t have another player who gave the team that one-two punch. Players like Mike Accursi, Derek Malawsky and Dan Teat were a few notable guys who featured as the next most significant threat to lead the Bandits.

By the late 2000s, Mark Steenhuis, now a Bandits legend, emerged as the teams number two star. From 2008 to 2011, Tavares and Steenhuis were the top two point-getters for the Bandits. The Bandits had never seen a consistent, prolonged stretch like this from two of their guys before. In 2008, after Tavares and Steenhuis led the team in points during the regular season, they continued leading the way in point totals during the playoffs and even helped deliver the team their fourth championship and first title in 12 years.

In 2013, with Tavares and Steenhuis near the ends of their respective careers, Smith entered the NLL. The following year, his first superstar partner in crime, Ryan Benesch, would join the club. From 2014-2017, these two, with the help of Steenhuis, would take the league by storm.

In 2015, the duo combined for 220 points (Benesch had the higher total with 113). A year later, Smith and Benesch again led the team in points, with Smith putting up an NLL record 137 regular season points (Benesch contributed to 56 of Smiths points that season). The team would make a run all the way to the 2016 championship series but lost out to the Saskatchewan Rush in the NLL Finals.

To this day, the only player who has directly impacted Smiths point totals over his 11-year career (meaning scoring off a Smith assist or feeding Smith for his own score), more than Benesch, is Byrne.

This brings us back to the Byrne and Smith connection. Byrne, who entered the NLL in 2018 (the season after Beneschs last year with the Bandits), had an instant chemistry with Smith on and off the NLL floors. In Byrnes rookie season, Smith was the primary assister to more than 60% of Byrnes goals that season. In 2019, Byrne missed half of the season, but, by the COVID-shortened season the next year, Byrne and Smith had their first year as the teams leading point-getters. Thats how its been ever since.

In every game, these two work their magic to find not only each other for the score but also their teammates. Between Smiths wizardry with the ball and Joshs ability to pierce the back of the net from anywhere on the floor, sometimes with no regard for his body, the Bandits have thrived with Byrne and Smith leading the way.

Along with the help from their Uber-talented supporting cast (and it feels so weird calling the likes of Chase Fraser, Tehoka Nanticoke and Chris Cloutier the supporting cast), the Bandits are now appearing in their fourth consecutive NLL Finals, which includes winning the 2023 NLL Cup. They are now only the fourth team in NLL history to reach four consecutive NLL Finals. Furthermore, they can be the first NLL team to win back-to-back NLL championships since the 2015-16 Saskatchewan Rush.

March 30, 2024: Buffalo Bandits vs Philadelphia Wings at Wells Fargo Center.

With all that they have accomplished, these two have already entered the conversation as the most outstanding offensive NLL teammates of all time. Whats even more mind-boggling is that Smith signed a five-year extension with the Bandits prior to the start of this season, and Josh followed suit a couple of months later, signing his own five-year extension. Having these two playing together for that much longer is something that makes every other team in the league unhappy.

Buffalo fans love their legends, and Smith and Byrne are already establishing themselves as legends, but there are others. From 1988 to 1995, Buffalo Bills fans remember the connection between NFL Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Andre Reed. Much like Byrne and Smith, Kelly had a sixth sense of where Reed was on the field at all times. Together, their success helped the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994. However, it must be noted that the Bills never managed to win a championship during that run (and they have still not won a Super Bowl).

Prior to that Bills’ almost-dynasty, there was The French Connection” of the 1970s consisting of Rick Martin, Rene Robert, and now-NHL Hall of Famer, Gilbert Perreault. The Quebecois trio shone as the starring Sabres’ forward line for the majority of the 70s and even helped the Sabres to their first-ever Stanley Cup appearance in 1975 – unfortunately, they lost to Philadelphia. The Sabres have never won the NHL’s trophy – they did, however, introduce the city to the idea of having their sports heroes come from Canada: 50 years later, we have Byrne and Smith.

When its all said and done and their contracts have expired, and we see an eventual parting of ways between Smith and Byrne, I have little doubt that they will be considered not only the greatest duo in NLL history but one of the greatest duos in sporting history. Byrne and Smith will have earned the right to be in conversations with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Payton Manning and Marvin Harrison, and Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. They will have been that elite.

Over the next two weeks, depending on how dominant Byrne and Smith are during the 2024 NLL Finals presented by AXIA, we could be looking at the most impressive complete season by a pair of teammates in NLL history. It is an NLL Finals appearance that can further cement their legendary status in Buffalo history. It is an opportunity to go down in sports history. Smith and Byrne are ready for this moment.