Buffalo Bandits coach John Tavares has either been through it or seen it during his legendary lacrosse career, first as a player and the NLL’s all-time leading scorer, and now as a bench boss.
Tavares recorded 1,949 points in 344 career regular-season and playoff games, all with the Bandits, but more importantly won four NLL championships during his 24-year career on the floor from 1992 to 2015.
Now, in his second season as Buffalo’s sole head coach, Tavares is using lessons from the past to prepare the top-seeded Bandits and propel them into Game 1 of the best-of-three NLL Finals against the underdog Colorado Mammoth at KeyBank Center on Saturday (7:30pm ET/ESPN+ and TSN4).
“Does history teach you anything?” asks Tavares, who won championships as a player in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2008 but lost in his first as a head coach in 2019, the last time the NLL Cup was presented.
It’s perhaps the losses more than the wins that Tavares sees as instructional, including the 2006 championship against the Mammoth.
“I remember losing at home,” Tavares says. “I do think that team took Colorado very lightly, we thought we had to just show up and win.”
The visiting Mammoth surprised favored Buffalo, racing out to an early lead and cruising to a 16-9 victory in the one-game, winner-take-all final in front of 16,104 rabid Banditland fans. It’s Colorado’s lone title since relocating to Denver in 2002, and on that team was current Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle.
“Well I think the lesson for this year is literally the same as it was in 2019,” says Tavares. “We got to the championship as the favored team, same as in 2006, and thinking we got through the East, this is ours. But then we lost two straight games to Calgary. The lesson learned there is don’t treat anybody lightly.”
Against Colorado, the Bandits will have to contend with a potent Mammoth offense averaging 13.75 goals-for per game in the playoffs led by Eli McLaughlin, Connor Robinson and Zed Williams, a lightning-quick transition game featuring Joey Cupido, and standout goaltending from Dillon Ward.
McLaughlin is the postseason scoring leader with 17 goals and 33 points in four games, and Williams has two game-winning goals. Tim Edwards is tops in faceoff wins at 62.3 percent, while defenceman Robert Hope has hoovered a playoff-best 38 loose balls. Cupido has four goals, and Ward has an 11.88 goals-against average and .762 save percentage.
“Colorado is a very good team,” Tavares says. “We’ll try to slow them down on offense and in transition. They beat us in the one game we had this year, and during the regular season they had comebacks many times. In the West finals [against San Diego], they won two road games to win the series.”
“We have to be the better team. All week we’ve been watching video to prepare for every situation. We have to be prepared, then show up and work hard. It will be a dogfight for both teams. A tough, tough series.”
Buffalo will counter with its own high-powered offense, the dynamic duo of Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne, a stellar supporting cast including Chris Cloutier, Connor Fields, Chase Fraser, Kyle Buchanan and rookie Tehoka Nanticoke, and top netminder Matt Vinc.
“Guys this year are close-knit, the core of the group has been around for a while and are hungry to win,” says Tavares.
Byrne leads the Bandits in playoff scoring with eight goals and 23 points in three games, while Smith is right behind with seven goals and 22 points. Vinc and Buffalo have been perfect in the postseason so far at 3-0, Vinc with a 10.33 goals-against average and .805 save percentage.
Both Vinc and Smith are on the cusp of playoff milestones. Vinc needs 15 minutes to become the first goaltender in NLL history to play 2,000 career postseason minutes, while Smith needs eight points to become the 12th player in league history to reach 100.
During their one and only regular-season meeting this year on April 2 in Denver, the Mammoth outlasted the Bandits in a back-and-forth affair with Robinson scoring the game-winner late in the fourth quarter for a tight 15-14 win. Smith had 12 points for Buffalo, and recorded a league-best 135 points in 18 regular-season games.
“Obviously Buffalo is in the NLL Finals for a reason,” says Robinson, who has netted 12 playoff goals after sniping a team-high 42 for Colorado during the regular season.
The Bandits were the NLL’s best team this season with a 14-4 record. The Mammoth finished 10-8, third in the West.
“They are a very good team all around, from their offense to Vinc in-between the pipes,” Robinson says. “We have to be ready on both sides of the floor. Being aware of Buffalo’s personnel is important but we’re focusing on us and what’s got us this far, by sticking together and playing Mammoth lacrosse.”