It truly was a Mammoth win as Colorado captured its first NLL championship since 2006 with a 10-8 victory in deciding Game 3 over the Bandits at KeyBank Center in Buffalo on Saturday night in front of 19,060 fans.
“This is why we play lacrosse, we play for championships,” said Mammoth captain Robert Hope, who was drafted in 2014 by Colorado. “It’s been a long time building. There’s a lot of emotions right now but we’re super happy, super pumped for this.”
Mammoth goaltender Dillon Ward was named NLL Finals MVP after setting a championship game record with 55 saves, including 22 in the fourth quarter. Ward made 40 saves each in both Colorado’s Game 2 win and Game 1 loss.
Zed Williams led the Mammoth on Saturday with four goals and two assists, while Chris Wardle added one goal and five assists. Brett McIntyre, Sam Firth (with his first NLL goal), Dylan Kinnear, Tyson Gibson and Anthony Joaquim also scored for Colorado, while Connor Robinson recorded two helpers and eight loose balls. Hope had three assists and three loose balls.
“I think our guys, we get better the later the series go on,” Hope said. “Our staff does a really good job with film and breaking down tendencies and systems. I thought we did a really good job of that, we made adjustments. The first game, they took it to us pretty good and we made some adjustments obviously.”
The Mammoth finished the regular season with a 10-8 record and were the West’s third playoff seed. Colorado then went on a run during the postseason, defeating defending 2019 NLL champion Calgary in the one-game first round before beating San Diego two games to one in the best-of-three West Conference Finals.
“You don’t get here by accident,” said Ward, who was drafted third overall in 2013 by the Mammoth. “We’ve had a really strong defense all year and we just went out and we executed what we wanted to.”
The Bandits, the league’s best team in the regular season at 14-4 and the top playoff seed, narrowly took an exciting Game 1 at home by a 15-14 margin on a last-minute goal by Nick Weiss. Colorado bounced back in Game 2 with an 11-8 comeback win in Denver, outscoring Buffalo 7-2 in the second half.
“It was a do-or-die situation. we needed to win.” Ward said. “Personally, I didn’t think I played my best game in Game 1. Game 2, I wanted to put my best foot forward and have my best game of the playoffs. Game 3 was the same situation, it was do or die, so just again wanted to play an awesome game, give my team confidence, give us a chance to win.”
In Saturday’s Game 3, the Bandits led 3-2 at the end of the first quarter but the Mammoth outscored Buffalo 5-2 in the second quarter to go up 7-5 at halftime. The Bandits scored the only goal of the third quarter and were able to tie the game 7-7 early in the fourth but Colorado then scored three straight goals, including two by Williams, to secure their third title in franchise history (2006 and in 1987 when the franchise was located in Baltimore).
Kyle Buchanan had three goals and one assist for Buffalo, while Josh Byrne had one goal and three assists. Dhane Smith, Ian MacKay, Chris Cloutier and Connor Fields also scored for the Bandits. Matt Vinc made 29 saves, and passed current Buffalo head coach John Tavares for most career postseason appearances with 39 games played.
“We played them hard,” said Ward. “We forced them into situations that I don’t think they wanted to be in, and the shots that we gave up for the most part were shots that I was looking for.”
Colorado was again without injured forwards Ryan Lee, who had 119 points in 18 regular-season games, and Eli McLaughlin, the NLL’s top playoff scorer with 20 goals and 41 points in five games, for Game 3. In a bit of gamesmanship, McLaughlin was added to the active roster earlier Saturday and dressed for the pregame warmup but was then scratched from the lineup.
“They counted us out as soon as Leezer went down, and we made it to the Finals. Liger goes down,” Robinson said. “The only people that thought we could this were the guys in the room.”
Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle lauded his team, from Ward on out to the defenders, the transition game, and forwards like Williams.
“We knew the longer we went without Ryan Lee and Eli McLaughlin, we were going to have to win games with our defense and our goaltending,” said Coyle. “And tonight, they did. Getting a transition goal from Anthony Joaquim was huge. That goal was really big. Our plan was that if we all can contribute, we’re going to be a hard team to stop.
“[Zed] took the responsibility on himself that he was going to step up. He’s a big man, and a strong guy and really hard to handle. I just think he’s a tough matchup and defenses have to adjust for him. And he’s such a fantastic team guy too, really humble, and a great family guy. We’re so lucky to have him.”
“[Ward]’s a goalie that adjusts well. He watches film, he knows where he gets scored on, and then he just changes how he plays a bit. He does very subtle things. I know Matt Vinc is a fantastic goalie, and all credit to him, but I feel like we have the best goalie in the league and we’ve been saying that for years. This is what Dillon’s been doing for 10 years with the Mammoth.”
For Coyle it’s his first championship as a coach after winning five as a player, including with Colorado in 2006.
“I’m still sort of shocked actually at how well it went for us,” Coyle said. “We had a plan but still, a part of it is there’s a lot of luck involved and there’s a lot of just the way the ball bounces.
“It’s awesome to win as a coach but … this is the players that did this. I’m so lucky to be part of the two championships with the Mammoth, and they both happened here [in Buffalo]. Really lucky.”
The Bandits, on the other hand, were not so lucky as they dropped their third consecutive finals appearance, following championship losses in 2016 to Saskatchewan and 2019 to Calgary. Buffalo has not won the NLL title since 2008.
“First place doesn’t mean anything,” said Tavares. “You got to go out and win. We ran into a hot team. Ward had a great game, great series. Zed Williams was hard to stop. The fourth quarter there, Ward made a bunch of good saves and Zed scored that game-winning goal.”
What a game, what a series, what a playoffs and what a season, which started on December 3, 2021 after the previous two seasons were shut down due to COVID-19 and then went on a seven-month rollercoaster ride unlike any other in NLL history with pandemic-related postponements and reschedulings, and games played in front of no or limited amounts of fans.
The league debuted teams in Albany, which relocated from New England, and Panther City, an expansion franchise based in Fort Worth, Texas. Next season Las Vegas joins the NLL.
But back to the 2021-22 season, one of constant setbacks, comebacks and next man up. In the end, the Colorado Mammoth are the last team standing.
“We went out there, we battled,” said Robinson. “We went out there and we got the job done, we’re NLL champs. Tusk up baby, woo!”