When you think about the Buffalo Bandits’ road to the 2023 NLL Finals, the 1976 hit song by Maxine Nightingale “Right Back Where We Started From” certainly comes to mind.
After the shock of losing last year’s championship series to Colorado, the Bandits have returned to the finals for a championship rematch with the Mammoth.
The disappointment of a year ago certainly fueled the fire for the Bandits to finish the story this year.
“It’s gotten us back to the exact same spot we were last year,” said Bandits General Manager and Assistant Coach Steve Dietrich.
The 2023 NLL Finals will begin on Saturday night with game one set for KeyBank Center in Buffalo (7pm ET; TSN and ESPN2). Game two will be Monday afternoon, Memorial Day in the US, May 29th in Colorado and a third game, if necessary, would be back in Buffalo on Saturday June 3rd.
To say that Buffalo is out to complete unfinished business would be an understatement.
The Bandits have won four MILL/NLL championships hoisting the trophy in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2008. But since that last championship 15 years ago, the Bandits have been back to the championship round on three prior occasions but lost all three including last year to Colorado dropping a decisive third game in Buffalo.
Throw in the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season when the Bandits felt that had a really good shot to win it all and it just seems like the franchise has been snakebit.
“Honestly, for a little while, you almost contemplate why are we even doing this?” said Dietrich. “You do everything you can…the ultimate goal is to win. Everything seems to be aligned. All the stars are aligned and then it doesn’t happen. You take a step back and you think is this ever going to happen? And if it’s not going to happen, then why do I do this? All of us can probably say we don’t do this for money. We don’t do this for glory. We do this to try and win a championship and last year was such a disappointment.”
There have been many times in professional sports when a disappointment the year before can set the tone for a team to make some changes and come back the next season and finish the job.
After getting swept by the New York Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers rebounded to beat the Islanders in the final the following year, the first of five Stanley Cups that the Oilers have won.
In 1995, the New York Yankees lost a heartbreaking decisive game five to the Seattle Mariners in the American League Division Series and came back the next year to win the World Series and that kickstarted a run of four World Series titles in five years for the Yankees.
And how about Lebron James and the 2011 Miami Heat? They were supposed to win it all but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. The Heat would recover from that disappointment and then win back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.
Could the Buffalo Bandits follow a similar script?
“Our staff put a plan together of what we wanted to do and it wasn’t driven so much out of a desire to get back to where we are,” said Dietrich. “It was driven by where do we think we’re weak? Where do we think we need to improve and then you just go forward and you try and do that and that’s what we did.”
That plan was in place as the Buffalo Bandits assembled for training camp prior to the start of the 2022-23 season. There are times when a championship team suffers what is called a “hangover” at the start of the following season, but in this case, it was the Bandits who were still trying to put the pieces together after losing to Colorado in last year’s finals.
There was still that sense of disappointment in not winning the championship.
“I think the guys came in almost a little shocked still after the way it finished,” said Dietrich. “I don’t want to say they came in overconfident. You’re still trying to deal with the loss.”
And then came the start of the regular season and perhaps the turning point for the Bandits in their quest to get back to the finals.
The Bandits opened their season at home against the Albany Firewolves on Saturday December 3rd.
The final score…Albany 11 Buffalo 10.
“That basically gave us a punch in the mouth and a big wakeup call,” said Dietrich. “It let everybody basically reset and reorganize and realize that we’re a good team and nothing is going to be handed to us and that’s when I felt that the rededication and the fire was relit underneath everybody. It took until after game one, I fully believe, to have us start to become the team that we’ve become.”
The Bandits would then go on to a 14-4 regular season earning the number one seed in the NLL. What’s amazing about the season as a whole was that just about every week the Bandits were missing at least one and sometimes multiple key players because of injuries.
In what could be a sign that this season could be different that season’s past, the Bandits didn’t let a little adversity get to them.
They just found a way to get the job done and take care of business in the regular season.
“I have to tip my cap to (Head Coach) John Tavares and the rest of our staff because they’ve done a tremendous job preparing these guys each week,” said Dietrich. “We were missing a lot of guys. I give our guys a lot of credit. They prepared the players each week and I give the players a ton of credit.”
Leading the way for the Bandits this season were two players who have been the glue that held everything together.
There’s a saying in sports that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. And the Bandits’ back end is anchored by goaltender Matt Vinc. The 40-year-old netminder just seems to age like a fine wine and he has backstopped the Bandits back to the finals.
“Not only is he the greatest goaltender who has ever played but he gives us so much confidence on the defensive end to be able to play the way we want to play,” said Dietrich. “Knowing you have him back there is such a security blanket and safety blanket and you know that if he’s on, we’re going to be really tough to beat on any given night.”
And let’s not forget about the elite offensive players on the Bandits including NLL MVP finalist Dhane Smith who could very well win his second straight National Lacrosse League Most Valuable Player award and third of his career.
He was the first player that Dietrich drafted when he became the Bandits’ General Manager in 2012 and the Kitchener, Ontario natives have been joined at the hip ever since.
“He and I go back a long way,” said Dietrich. “I think Dhane is the best lacrosse player in the world, indoor or outdoor. He’s a great feeder. He sees the floor incredibly well. I’m sure his number will be up in the rafters one day in Buffalo because he’s as complete of a lacrosse player as this league has ever seen.”
After an outstanding regular season, the Bandits began their postseason run on May 6th with a 20-8 win over the Rochester Knighthawks in the single elimination Quarterfinals round. That punched the Bandits’ ticket to a rematch of last year’s East Conference Finals against the Toronto Rock.
In game one of the best-of-three series on May 12th in Buffalo, the Bandits dismantled the Rock 14-5. And then in game two the next night in Hamilton, the Bandits completed the sweep with a 17-8 victory and with that win they advanced to the NLL Finals.
Was it as easy as it looked with a +30 goal differential in three games?
“No, not at all,” said Dietrich. “I look at adversity in the fact that we dealt with adversity for the first 16 or 17 weeks of the season. We dealt with adversity all year. Hopefully now things are starting to roll our way and hopefully we can start to get healthy, stay healthy and continue on here.”
And now, an NLL Finals rematch with the defending champion Colorado Mammoth, who also defeated Dietrich and Tavares in the 2006 championship.
This time, the Bandits are hoping for a different result against a team that shattered their championship dreams a year ago.
“It’s going to be an amazing challenge,” said Dietrich. “The revenge factor will be there. Colorado’s got some dynamic guys who killed us last year so we’re well aware of those guys. We’re going to have to be ready to go right from the (start) in game one and forget about anything that has happened in the past.”
But it is that past that has driven the Bandits back to this point and it has been the past that has haunted Buffalo sports fans for decades.
The Buffalo Bills have never won a Super Bowl.
The Buffalo Sabres have never hoisted the Stanley Cup.
It’s up to the Bandits, who will be looking for their first championship since 2008, to finally bring that winning feeling back to the fans in Buffalo.
“It’s such a great city and has such a great fan base for every sport,” said Dietrich. “It’s definitely a group of people who definitely deserve a championship there’s no doubt about that.”
And now, the Buffalo Bandits are right back where they were a year ago…with a chance to win it all.