When the Buffalo Bandits gathered for training camp prior to the start of the 2021-22 National Lacrosse League season, there was a mission statement, one that was no different than any of the other clubs in the NLL.
And that mission statement is to win it all.
“I’m sure if you asked anybody on any team, they’re going to give you the same answer,” said Bandits Head Coach, John Tavares. “Everybody’s goal is to win the championship.”
And that’s where the Bandits are as they prepare to meet the Colorado Mammoth in the NLL Finals with Game 1 set for Saturday night at KeyBank Center in Buffalo (7:30pm ET ESPN+/TSN4).
For the Bandits, the story of the 2021-22 season could be titled “Unfinished Business”.
That’s because to put what the Bandits have accomplished so far this season and what they ultimately hope to do in the finals, you have to go back two years to the 2018-19 NLL season. The Bandits were the top seed heading into the playoffs with a 14-4 record and they advanced to meet the Calgary Roughnecks in the NLL Finals.
Things didn’t go according to plan.
“Going into that championship, people were saying that we were the favorites and we’re going to win,” recalled Tavares. “They swept us two games to zero and that was definitely a learning lesson.”
And that was the last time that two teams competed for the NLL title.
The 2019-20 season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a champion was not crowned. The pandemic also wiped out the entire 2020-21 season so the Bandits have been waiting a long time to get back to this point.
And that journey started during the off-season with the painful memory of what happened three years ago.
“We have a lot of guys from that losing team that have something to prove,” said Tavares. “Going into this year, we tried to get an early start. The guys were training well before training camp started. They put a lot of sweat, blood and not much tears and a lot of effort into this entire season well before the regular season even began.”
The Bandits opened up the 2021-22 season on fire with six straight wins and they were 13-1 through 14 games. They won games in many different ways. There was a small sense of revenge gained in their season opener on December 4th when they handled the team that beat them in the 2019 Finals as they beat Calgary 16-9. Then there was a trip to Long Island on January 30th when the Bandits rallied from a 3-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the New York Riptide 18-17 in overtime.
In a nutshell, the Bandits were sending a message to the rest of the NLL that they were a machine.
“We got off to a really good start,” said Tavares. “I remember the first few games of the season we were very successful getting off not only to a good start in the standings but also a good start in pretty much every game that we played. We had good leads and learned to play with the lead.
But after just about everything was going their way, the Bandits began to face some adversity as they closed the regular season with three losses in their last four games to finish 14-4.
It’s not an ideal way to head into the playoffs, but the Bandits were still the number one seed and they certainly learned some lessons as they prepared for the post-season.
“Over the course of the year, you’re going to run into some obstacles,” said Tavares. “That just taught us how to get better and taught us what we had to improve on. It took us back to the drawing board.”
And that drawing board helped the Bandits get back on track as they opened the NLL Playoffs on May 7th with a 10-5 win over Albany in Banditland. Then it was onto the East Conference Finals against the Toronto Rock and the Bandits had their hands full. Buffalo took game one in Buffalo 18-17 on May 15th and then finished off the two-game sweep on May 21st winning 10-9 in Hamilton, Ontario.
In Game 1, Toronto hit the post with the waning seconds of the game but was unable to tie it as time expired. It looked like Toronto had tied Game 2 with a last-second goal, but after video review, it was determined that the ball went into the net after the clock hit zero.
“It took two tough battles right to the last second or tenth of a second to win those games,” said Tavares.
And now, the Bandits are back in the finals after a regular season that seemed to have a little bit of everything. There was a lot of success for most of the season and then there were some struggles at the ends of the season and a close call against Toronto in the playoffs.
The Bandits are now two wins away from the fifth championship in franchise history.
We’re going (into the finals) with one thing in mind and that’s to win,” said Tavares. “At the end of the day, I think what really led us to improve and get to the finals is the group of guys that we have on the team. Every guy on our team puts the team first.”
In the finals, the Bandits will be facing a Mammoth team that began Buffalo’s late season struggles with a 15-14 win over the Bandits on April 2nd in Denver. The game was tied at 14-14 when Colorado’s Connor Robinson scored the game winning goal with a minute to go in the fourth quarter.
The Bandits expect a tough matchup in the finals.
“They have a lot of threats offensively,” said Tavares. “They’re very athletic defensively. They move the ball in transition. It’s a tough place to play in Colorado. They create a lot of havoc for any opponent.”
The Buffalo Bandits last won an NLL title in 2008 when they beat Portland in the finals. Since then, the Bandits have been back to the finals twice without winning bringing the total number of finals that they’ve lost to five, more than the four times that they’ve won.
The goal this season is simple…unfinished business to bring championship number five to Buffalo.