The Buffalo Bandits (15-5) punched the team’s ticket to the Champion’s Cup Finals with a 20-15 win over the New England Black Wolves in front of 14,255 at the First Niagara Center on Saturday night. The Bandits won the series 2-0 and advance to the championship series against the defending champion Saskatchewan Rush.
The journey to reach the Champion’s Cup Finals is a long one that began in preseason on November 27 for the Bandits and isn’t finished yet.
“At the beginning of the year, we started off training camp with a strong message to the guys, that it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice,” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley. “It’s good to be to this point, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
The Bandits opened the scoring just 11 seconds into the game with Jay Thorimbert finding the back of the net. Mark Steenhuis gave Buffalo a two goal lead before the Wolves went on a three goal run. Emotions boiled over after about 10 minutes when David Brock and Mike McNamara dropped the gloves. New England extended it’s lead to 4-2 with 2:57 to go on a power play goal from Shawn Evans. Mitch Jones and Evans traded goals and the first quarter ended 5-3 in favor of New England.
Buffalo also scored first in the second quarter when Anthony Malcom found the back of the net. The game was tied 6-6 with 9:38 to go before Mitch de Snoo took a major penalty for an illegal cross check. Pat Saunders and Kevin Crowley scored on the power play, then Derek Suddons scored short handed to give New England a 9-6 lead. The Bandits used a three-goal run to end the first half tied 9-9.
“We talked about a 9-9 game at the half. We knew we weren’t playing very well and we weren’t very smart in a couple situations,” said Cordingley. “We turned it around and eventually took the game over.”
The third quarter saw the game tied four different times until Malcom gave Buffalo a 14-13 lead into the final quarter.
Chad Culp scored his second goal before Kevin Buchanan scored his fifth to keep Buffalo’s lead at one goal. Ryan Benesch scored two straight goals to give Buffalo a three goal lead with less than five minutes to go. Buchanan scored again for New England, but Culp added another tally as the Bandits got back to up three with 1:53 to go. Steenhuis netted a penalty shot goal before Alex Kedoh Hill gave Buffalo a 20-15 lead that would seal the victory.
“This is an unbelievable feeling. It doesn’t feel real. Now we’re in the finals and we’re not done yet,” said NLL regular season scoring champ Dhane Smith. “There’s something different about this year. We don’t get too high or too low and we know we’re going to get the next goal.”
After scoring four goals in game one on Monday, Hill kept his scoring streak going in the series by adding four more goals and three assists on Saturday night. The NLL’s leading scorer Smith (4+5) also stayed red hot. Kevin Buchanan (6+1) and Shawn Evans (2+4) led the scoring for the Black Wolves in the loss.
“Kedoh has picked his game up another notch in the playoffs. He’s a great transition player and might have the best stick skills in the league,” added Cordingley. “Culp does all the gritty work and all the dirty work and he got three tonight. He was really good.”
Culp (3+1) was sporting the hard hat given to the player voted to have had the best game by the Bandits locker room. He’s excited for the rare opportunity to compete for the Champion’s Cup.
“It’s a long journey for sure, it’s a long season. We got the two wins we needed to get to the finals and now we need two more,” said Culp. “This is my 14th year and I haven’t had a chance yet. It’s really exciting and hopefully we come out victorious.”
A rivalry developed between the Bandits and Black Wolves throughout the regular season and playoffs and Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark could feel the intensity.
“There’s a bit of nastiness out there, but that’s the game and we’re used to it,” said coach Clark. “The game was what we expected. We fought and came up a bit short and it was a battle. Everything was earned.”
After finishing at the bottom of the league in 2015, the Black Wolves showed vast improvement making it to the East Division Finals. Clark was encouraged by the progress he saw.
“I’m happy with how the guys played,” he said. “They played to the final whistle and gave what they had. You can’t beat yourself up about it. It’s disappointing, but when we look at the totality of the season, we’ve made some good progress. We’ve put a few of those ‘foundation pieces’ in place and I think it bodes well for us moving forward.”
The Bandits host Game 1 of the Champion’s Cup Finals on Saturday, May 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET live on TSN 2 & TSN GO and the ESPN app. Game 2 is set for Saturday, June 4 at 9 p.m. ET in Saskatoon and should the series be tied 1-1, Game 3 would take place in Buffalo on Saturday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Three Stars of the Game:
1) Dhane Smith
2) Alex Kedoh Hill
3) Kevin Buchanan
By Steve Bermel for NLL.com. Photo by Bill Wippert.