Saturday night, it was a case of NLL Finals déjà vu, when the Buffalo Bandits hosted the defending champion Colorado Mammoth in Game 1 of the best-of-three league championship series. 51 weeks ago, the exact same scenario played out at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, with the outcome of 2022’s 15-14 Bandits Game 1 triumph looking mighty similar to Saturday’s 2023 finals opening act.
The Bandits received a major dose of bad news, prior to Game 1, when superstar forward Josh Byrne was declared inactive. While the loss of Byrne served as a significant blow to John Tavares’ squad, the incomparable Dhane Smith took it upon himself to fill the void left by his high scoring teammate.
The two-time MVP posted the game’s initial goal, a mere 40 seconds into the frame, and was off to the races from there. Smith found the back of the net three more times in the first quarter, pacing Buffalo to a 4-0 and 5-2 lead, 12 minutes into the contest. That was the most goals scored in a single quarter in the NLL Finals since 2002.
At that point in time, a couple guys named Zed Williams and Eli McLaughlin declared enough was enough, cutting the lead to 5-4, in the wake of back-to-back goals to end the first.
Moving forward, this game evolved into a back-and-forth slugfest, with Colorado heading into halftime holding an 8-7 lead, stunning the home crowd of 14,260 after the rabid Buffalo fans watched their team jump out to an early lead.
The third quarter belonged to the Bandits, with the East Conference champs outscoring the Mammoth 5-1, courtesy of three spectacular Tehoka Nanticoke goals, with four straight from the Bandits coming in the first 3:24 of the third quarter to take back the lead.
Come the fourth, Colorado flipped the switch, outpacing Buffalo 3-1 and cutting the lead to just one goal with five minutes of on the edge of your seat lacrosse still left on the clock. A Matt Vinc save with just 16 seconds remaining set the stage for a closing seconds full field pass and Zed Williams dunk attempt that came within inches of tying the game at 13-13 at the final buzzer.
Talk about drama!
Buffalo’s 13-12 Game 1 win included the five and three-goal performances from the aforementioned Smith and Nanticoke, along with a hat trick from Chase Fraser and single goal contributions from Ian MacKay and Brad McCulley.
On the Mammoth side of the equation, Eli McLaughlin posted his own hat trick, with Williams, Ryan Lee and Tyson Gibson putting the ball between the pipes two times apiece.
The series now heads 1,500 miles west to Denver’s Ball Arena, with Buffalo looking to turn the tables and capture the NLL Cup on the Mammoth’s home floor, similar to what the defending champs achieved last June in Buffalo’s raucous home building.
There are so many parallels to last year. Colorado took care of business on their home floor for Game 2, winning 11-8 before heading back to Banditland for the Game 3 series clincher. Can the defending champs force another winner take all Game 3?
The Bandits quest for their first league title since 2008 takes place Memorial Day Monday, at 4:00pm ET/2:00 MT, on ESPN2 and TSN.
Buckle up for what could be a wild ride!