The defending NLL champion Colorado Mammoth are comfortable with being thrust into the underdog role once again.
During the Mammoth’s unlikely 2022 run to the franchise’s first title since 2006, Colorado had plenty of improbable comebacks in both the regular season and playoffs.
The Mammoth, currently out of the West playoff picture at 5-6, are hoping they have some of that mojo remaining as they head into Saturday’s rematch of last season’s Cup Finals with the league-leading Buffalo Bandits at KeyBank Center (7:30 pm ET; ESPN+/TSN+).
“Yes we are underdogs again,” Colorado captain Robert Hope says ahead of the clash with the 10-2 Bandits. “They are a good team and we will have to play our best lacrosse.”
The Mammoth, who clinched the NLL Cup at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center last June, will certainly have to play their best lacrosse the rest of the way to have another chance at a championship.
“The memories of being on that floor last time were obviously amazing,” says Hope. “Anytime you win a championship, it’s so special. That being said, that was last year and we know it’s going to be even tougher this time around.
“We want to win each and every time we step on the floor, if it’s home or away. We need to get things back on track and put together a full 60 to do that.”
Colorado has been hampered this season by injuries to key players, including high-scoring forward Ryan Lee and veteran sparkplug Joey Cupido, and below-average play on both offense and defense.
This season the Mammoth are only scoring 9.82 goals-for per game, 14th best in the 15-team NLL, and giving up 12.27 goals-against per game. Netminder Dillon Ward, the 2022 Cup Finals MVP, has an 11.92 goals-against average and .780 save percentage.
“I feel we just need more consistency with our play overall,” Hope says. “We need to start the game ready to play. Offensively and defensively, we can both feed off one another. We have to play our roles and stick to the game plan.”
For the Bandits, Saturday is about redemption for last season’s Cup defeat as well as continuing the journey toward the 2023 postseason. Buffalo, also dealing with injuries to key players this season, can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Colorado.
According to Bandits play-by-play announcer John Gurtler, who has been at the mic for games since 2004, all of Banditland is looking forward to Saturday’s rematch with the Mammoth.
“Taking place nine months to the day after the game that ended the Bandits’ season last June, the NLL Finals rematch presents both a test and an opportunity for a Bandits team that has won six straight,” Gurtler says in this week’s Gurts Fast Break on Bandits.com.
“For many players, losing Game 3 of the NLL Finals on June 18 still lurks in some manner. The pain is gone, but the remembrance has remained prevalent throughout this 10-2 season.”
Buffalo won its last NLL championship in 2008. The Bandits have been to the Cup Finals three times since then, coming up short in 2016, 2019 and 2022.
“Deep down, these players remember all too well their curtain call in front of 19,070 fans inside KeyBank Center, losing to Colorado two games to one, and the trophy that has evaded them the last three times” says Gurtler.
“And yet for some, Saturday’s game against Colorado is just another one on the schedule. A lot has changed over the past nine months.”
Buffalo hasn’t missed a beat this season, humming along at 12.92 goals-for per game (fourth best in the league) and 10.33 goals-against (third). Bandits goalie Matt Vinc is again among the top tenders with a 10.25 goals-against average and .810 save percentage.
Dhane Smith, Buffalo’s leading scorer, is tops in the league with 67 assists and second with 94 points. The Mammoth’s leading scorer this season, Eli McLaughlin with 45 points, has less than half what Smith does.
“They have some great players that thrive in 1v1 situations,” says Colorado’s Hope. “We will have to play our systems and put them in tough shooting positions that our goalies can square up to.
“Defensively, we can always help out the O by getting the ball to them early in the clocks, playing good D and chipping in the odd goal.”
But for Hope and the Mammoth, their playoff push starts with hard work.
“Everyone has to be better,” Hope says. “At times we have to just put in more effort. Hard work can solve a lot of problems.”