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March to the Finals: Colorado

It’s like déjà vu all over again for the Colorado Mammoth as they look to repeat their 2022 title.

A regular season with ups and downs but still comfortably made the playoffs. Both seasons finish with a 7-2 home record, head into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, almost identical goals for and goals against averages, an overtime win and an overtime loss. Trade deadline acquisitions ahead of a memorable championship run.

As underdogs in the Quarterfinals, they pulled off an upset on the road. Take Game 1 of the West Conference Finals, lose Game 2 in a thriller and hold on to win Game 3 to advance to the NLL Finals to see the juggernaut Buffalo Bandits. Can they finish the story in the same way with a championship?

The beginning of the title defense for the Mammoth got off to a rough start with an 18-6 drumming from the Saskatchewan Rush in game one. Colorado started the season without, Ryan Lee, who set a franchise record with 119 points last regular season and former Rookie of the Year, Tyson Gibson, on the right-handed side of the offense. Shortly after that game one loss, General Manager, Brad Self went out and signed veteran free agent, Rhys Duch, to help bolster the offense on that side.

The team would regroup, defeating conference rivals Panther City, Calgary, and Saskatchewan to get to their 3-1 start, including a thrilling 11-10 overtime win versus Saskatchewan with the game winning goal scored by Duch.

Another key blow to the Mammoth happened on February 3 when Mammoth alternate captain and spark plug, Joey Cupido, went down with a season ending injury in the win against the Swarm. The team had to regroup as they played the next day in Las Vegas, a game the team would lose 13-8 behind rookie Jack Hannah’s sock trick.

Including the loss against Las Vegas, the Mammoth would lose four of five games, slipping in the standings after their promising start. The one win came against Panther City in Ryan Lee’s return to the lineup on February 24.

Colorado took on a familiar opponent in the Buffalo Bandits on March 18 that helped get their season back on track.

During that game on the road, the Mammoth would start slow, trailing 4-1 after the first frame. Early in the second, the team rallied for four goals in the span of 3:03 to take the lead. Heading into the fourth quarter up by one, Colorado scored the last five goals of the game to win 13-8.

At the trade deadline on March 20, the Mammoth acquired veteran defenseman Garrett McIntosh from Las Vegas while sending Rhys Duch to Saskatchewan given Lee and Gibson returned to the lineup.

They would lose their next game out to Vancouver, 14-12, after fighting hard to get back into the game after trailing 13-7 early in the fourth.

After the Warriors game, the Mammoth would win their next three games to clinch their spot in the postseason. All three games had critical impact on the final standings starting with an 11-9 win over Las Vegas, followed by a redeeming 12-5 win over Vancouver, and lastly a hotly contested 15-14 win over San Diego, all three at home.

With a playoff spot clinched, the Mammoth did not have a ton to play for in the final two weeks other than potential seeding into the playoffs as either the three or four seed, losing their last two heading into the postseason.

Going into the playoffs as the fourth seed in the West and lowest seed overall, the Mammoth felt at home being the underdogs but ready to perform.

Their first-round matchup against the Seals this year played out just like last season for the Mammoth against the Roughnecks. The Mammoth faced those teams in the last weekend of the regular season, losing on the road, before going back into hostile territory the week after and coming out with a shocking win in the single elimination Quarterfinals.

This seasons Quarterfinal game between San Diego and Colorado was an instant classic. Colorado came out firing, scoring seven of the first nine goals. Seals forward Kevin Crowley scored with nine seconds left in the half to bring it to a 7-5 game.

Back and forth the teams went.

San Diego would use two critical powerplay goals in the fourth quarter to get the game to within one before Mac O’Keefe scored to tie it at 11. As only he can, Eli McLaughlin scored the go ahead goal before Kevin Crowley scored his third of the night to tie it at 12 with just over three minutes remaining. A key penalty was called on San Diego for holding with just over 30 seconds remaining in the fourth. Eli McLaughlin would get the game winner with 1.8 seconds remaining in regulation.

Another tough test faced the Mammoth as they were to take on the Roughnecks, a team they traditionally have had low success against in the postseason. Game 1 was hosted at home for the Mammoth. Connor Robinson took his turn playing hero, scoring the only two goals of the fourth quarter, both on powerplays, to give the Mammoth an 8-7 win in a defensive battle between two amazing goaltenders.

Game 2 in Calgary took a turn with the scoring heating up in the second half. A combined 17 goals were scored in the last 30 minutes of the game, but Calgary held on despite the Mammoth scoring two goals late to bring the game to within one. Colorado had multiple attempts before the final whistle sounded but no luck to force the game to overtime.

Game 3 was all lacrosse fans could have wanted, another close battle from whistle to whistle. The defenses were playing stout, not allowing many shots let alone high percentage scoring opportunities. The Roughnecks played to their strengths, scoring three shorthanded goals. Calgary scored the only two goals of the third to take a one goal advantage into the fourth. The Mammoth flipped the script, scoring three of their own and shutting out Calgary in the last 15. Zed Williams had a rip from the restraining line to tie the game. Warren Jeffrey scored the go-ahead goal with 6:28 remaining in transition. Connor Robinson would bury the insurance goal with 14 seconds remaining after Dillon Ward and company were able to stop multiple Roughnecks scoring opportunities.

Despite their 9-9 regular season record, this team knows how to play in the clutch. Their only positive quarter in goal differential is the fourth at +20.

Despite the number of 100-point scorers this season across the league, Eli McLaughlin led the team with just 83 points on 44 goals. Zed Williams and Connor Robinson each contributed with 71 points. In the postseason Ryan Lee has over 20 points while McLaughlin, Williams and Robinson have 15 or more each in four games.

Despite what he may consider a marginal performance in the regular season with a 9-7 record, 11.19 goals against average and a 78% save percentage, Dillon Ward has played large in the post season. In four games, he is 3-1 with a 9.75 goals against average and an 80% save percentage.

The Finals are nothing new for this Mammoth team and everyone in the locker room has the belief they can win again this season. They are healthier than they were last season, now with Lee and McLaughlin in the lineup. They have been underdogs before and continue to follow the “next man up” mentality.

Since the beginning of last season, the Bandits are a combined 35-10 including the postseason. 40% of those losses have come against the Mammoth. We could find out this weekend if we get a repeat champion for the first time since 2015-16 (Rush) or if the Bandits get their first title since 2008.

Catch Game 1 of the NLL Finals in Buffalo on Saturday, May 27 at 7pm ET on ESPN2 and TSN. Game 2 is on Memorial Day in the United States on Monday, May 29 at 4pm ET back in Colorado, airing on ESPN2 and TSN. Game 3 if necessary is back in Banditland on Saturday, June 3 at 7:30pm ET on TSN and ESPN+.

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