It’s deja vu all over again at the NLL Finals for the Colorado Mammoth and Buffalo Bandits.
Just like last year, the Mammoth and Bandits are going to a NLL Cup-deciding Game 3 after Colorado evened the best-of-three championship series by beating Buffalo in Game 2, this time 16-10 at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday.
In the 2022 Finals, the Mammoth also won Game 2 at home before taking Game 3 at Buffalo for the franchise’s first NLL title since 2006. Including Monday’s win, Colorado is now a perfect 7-0 in playoff elimination games the past two seasons.
“We have some really big-game players,” Mammoth coach Pat Coyle said postgame. “When we’re in an elimination game we’re not guessing, is this guy going to show up tonight or not? We have players that really show up in those games. Just that confidence, I think, really helps.”
On Monday, it was Memorial Day in the U.S. but perhaps more like Groundhog Day in Denver as the Mammoth beat the Bandits, who won Game 1 on Saturday in Buffalo 13-12.
Winner-take-all Game 3 is this upcoming Saturday (7:30 pm ET; ESPN+/TSN/TSN+).
Ryan Lee led Colorado in goals with four and had seven points, while Eli McLaughlin also had seven points on three goals and four assists as the Mammoth scored five power-play markers, a short-handed tally and a penalty shot in the victory.
Connor Robinson recorded three goals and two assists, and Zed Williams netted two goals and four assists for Colorado. Chris Wardle, Tim Edwards, Tyson Gibson and Dylan Kinnear added singles.
Dhane Smith had a game-high eight points and six assists for the Bandits, while Tehoka Nanticoke scored four goals.
Ian MacKay, Kyle Buchanan, Chris Cloutier and Chase Fraser also replied for Buffalo, which was without star forward Josh Byrne for the second straight game.
Mammoth goalie Dillon Ward made 38 saves for the win, while Bandits netminder Matt Vinc had 42 stops as the two teams combined for a total of 107 shots on goal.
“It was a do-or-die game, backs were against the wall and there was no room for error,” said Ward, the 2022 Cup Finals MVP. “We have a great locker room with a lot of trust and we know what we’re going to get from guys.
“Buffalo got a lot of looks inside on Saturday, and we did a really good job of taking away their space, forcing them to take outside shots. I was able to see the ball really well tonight and that was key to our success on the back end.”
Buffalo was out front early 2-0 and 3-1 but the first quarter ended tied at 3-3. Entering Monday’s game, the Bandits were a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs when scoring first.
Colorado took over in the second quarter, outscoring Buffalo 5-2 including a natural hat-trick by Lee to take an 8-5 lead into halftime.
The Mammoth rode that momentum into the third quarter, again outscoring the Bandits 5-2 to lead 13-7 heading into the fourth, where the teams both scored three goals each in the final 15 minutes.
Colorado went 5-for-11 on the power play and Buffalo was 4-for-4 as the teams combined for 58 penalty minutes in the continued rough-and-tough rivalry. The Bandits had 42 of those minutes in the box. As the game continued and momentum swung in Colorado’s way, the more the Bandits took uncharacteristic penalties.
“We got off to a good start; they came back a bit,” Buffalo coach John Tavares said postgame. “We had a couple of power-play goals and then all of a sudden we just took penalty after penalty after penalty after penalty.”
Monday’s attendance at the Loud House for Game 2 was 10,686, following on the heels of Game 1’s 14,260 in Banditland.
All eyes now turn to Game 3 on Saturday in Buffalo as the defending champion Mammoth aim to repeat while the Bandits look to shed the bridesmaid label after unsuccessful trips to the Finals in 2022, 2019 and 2016, and rewrite the script to win their first NLL championship since 2008.
“We just got to reset; a one-game series now,” Tavares said. “This is the team that beat us last year, literally the same predicament we were [in] 365 days ago.
“And if you asked me, [or] anybody on our team, one year ago if we had the opportunity to play in one game again for a championship I’m sure we’d have taken it.”