When things are looking down for the defending NLL champion Colorado Mammoth, all they have to do is look up to goalie Dillon Ward.
Ward stopped 33 of 40 shots, including a game-saver with time winding down, as the Mammoth advanced to the NLL Finals for the second straight year after an exciting 9-7 comeback win over the Calgary Roughnecks in deciding Game 3 of the West Conference Finals at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday night.
“All year, ups and downs,” Ward said postgame in the Colorado dressing room. “This is what we’re fighting for, to get back to another opportunity to play for a championship.”
The underdog Mammoth (4th in West; 9-9 regular-season record) will once again face the high-flying Buffalo Bandits (1st in East; 14-4) in the three-game Cup Finals series. Game 1 is next Saturday, May 27, at KeyBank Center in Banditland.
In Calgary on Saturday, Ward made his most spectacular save on Roughnecks forward Tyler Pace with 20 seconds remaining in the game and Colorado leading 8-7.
Pace was in alone on Ward after he and Calgary teammate Tanner Cook double-teamed the Mammoth’s Zed Williams to strip the ball away deep near the Colorado net following a timeout with 28.1 seconds left. Cook picked up the loose ball and fed Pace, who danced across the crease and shot back short side.
But the 6-foot-5 Ward stood tall and made the save before the Mammoth recovered the ball and sent it up the floor to forward Connor Robinson, who was all alone to put it in the empty net with 13.4 seconds remaining to seal the deal for Colorado, and Ward was mobbed by his teammates.
After leading 6-5 at halftime, the Mammoth didn’t score during the third quarter and entered the fourth trailing 7-6 after the Roughnecks tallied twice to regain the lead.
But then it was the Colorado defense and Ward’s turn to shut the door, holding Calgary scoreless for the final 15 minutes.
“It showed a lot of resiliency out there,” Mammoth captain Robert Hope said in an on-floor postgame interview. “We’re very fortunate to play in front of D. Ward. It’s amazing what he does. He’s one of the best in the world.”
Williams had a game-high four points on two goals and two assists, including a key tally that tied up the game 7-7 at 8:52 of the fourth quarter on a rip from the restraining line. Colorado defender Warren Jeffrey scored the go-head goal at 6:28 and finished with three points, adding two assists for the big defenseman.
Eli McLaughlin (one goal; two assists) also had three points, while Robinson, Ryan Lee, Chris Wardle and Tyson Gibson all recorded a goal and assist each. Faceoff specialist Tim Edwards also scored for the Mammoth.
For the Roughnecks, who set a franchise record for regular-season wins at 13-5 (second in West), it was a sudden end to a promising year. On Saturday, Calgary held a 4-2 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Haiden Dickson recorded three points (one goal, two assists) for the Roughnecks, while Cook, Zach Currier, Jesse King, Kyle Waters, Shane Simpson and Jeff Cornwall all had a goal and assist each. Christian Del Bianco made 28 saves on 36 shots.
It was as close a West Conference Finals series could be. Colorado beat Calgary 8-7 with a comeback in Game 1 before the Roughnecks edged the Mammoth 13-12 in Game 2.
Cardiac Colorado is familiar with close games, tight playoff series and Ward’s heroics in net. The Mammoth won the 2022 Finals against the Bandits in three games and Ward was the NLL Finals MVP.
So now Colorado again turns its attention to Buffalo. The Bandits are making their third consecutive Finals appearance but are looking for their first championship since 2008.
“They’ve played really well this year, watching them and seeing what they’ve done in the playoffs,” said Mammoth captain Hope. “I know they’re very hungry. It’ll be a tough series.”
Game 2 of the NLL Finals goes on Monday, May 29 at Ball Arena in Denver on Memorial Day in the States, with a deciding Game 3 scheduled for Saturday, June 3 in Buffalo if necessary. To check the broadcast schedule, click here.