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Buffalo wins Game 2 15-13 to clinch Back-to-Back Titles; Byrne is Finals MVP

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Who Are the Top 10 Players to Watch in the NLL Finals?

The 2024 NLL Finals Presented by AXIA Time, featuring the Albany FireWolves and the Buffalo Bandits, kick off on Friday night. The FireWolves are making their first-ever NLL Finals appearance, while the Bandits will be seeking their sixth NLL championship, which would tie for the most championship wins in league history. Regardless of how each team has done historically in this position, there’s no doubt that both clubs are loaded with incredible talent. Here are the Top 10 players to keep your eyes on during the championship series.

10. Ethan Walker

You can’t talk about the success of either Alex Simmons or Tye Kurtz (two Rookie of the Year finalists) without mentioning Walker. The reality is that no player on the FireWolves tallied more primary assists for either Simmons or Kurtz than Walker. Walker was the primary assister on 25 of Simmons and Kurtz’s 70 combined goals during the regular season (35.7%). In total, his 52 assists were the second best on the team and he managed to also score 32 goals himself, which tied him with Kurtz for the second most goals during the regular season. Walker completes the three-headed offensive monster on the FireWolves, and has the ability to be the most dangerous weapon on the attack.

 

9. Ian MacKay

If you’ve been watching the NLL over the last few years, you might have noticed that the game seems a little faster. That’s thanks, in part, to supreme transition talents such as MacKay. The run-and-gun, non-stop, back-and-forth action has accelerated because guys like MacKay are pushing the tempo and trying to be more involved on the offensive side of the ball. Whether off a caused turnover or off an outlet pass from Matt Vinc, you’ll see MacKay sprinting past defenders and adding depth to an already talented offense. If you look at his numbers, you can see he’s done a little bit of everything to help his Bandits win ball games during the postseason. Then there’s the fact that he’s a Transition Player of the Year finalist. MacKay just knows how to step up to the plate when his team needs a big moment.

 

8. Steve Priolo

Arguably no defensive player has made a greater impact on his team’s results over the last several postseason runs than Steve Priolo. This postseason is no different. Priolo is a dogged, fearless, bone-crushing defenseman. He knows how to ruffle feathers, but he’s very disciplined when he needs to be. He is a leader on the floor and a top-tier talent. If the Bandits are going to have success against the quick and feisty Albany offense, Priolo is going to need to be a beast on his team’s back end if they want to humble their youthful opponents.

 

7. John Wagner

Wagner has emerged as one of the top defensive players in this year’s postseason. Heading into the Finals, Wagner leads all players this postseason in loose ball recoveries (34). He’s also been hounding players all over the floor and has boldly stepped in front of a handful of shots. He ranks in the Top 5 this postseason in loose ball recoveries, blocked shots and caused turnovers. He is the only player to be in the Top 5 in all of those categories during the playoffs. Although he’s bounced around the league in the earliest stages of his career (this is his fourth team in four seasons) he has continued to improve evey year. For a guy who was acquired at the trade deadline back in March, Wagner has fit into his new team perfectly and plays a pivotal role on the team’s defense.

 

6. Tye Kurtz

In his rookie season, Tye Kurtz defined himself as a big team guy. Whether he was scoring, assisting, or scrapping for loose balls, Kurtz found a way to deliver for his team. What’s even more impressive is that he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. As the FireWolves prepare for their first NLL Finals Presented by Axia appearance, Kurtz is the only Albany player this postseason with 10+ points and 10+ loose ball recoveries, and that includes leading the team in assists. Kurtz’s rookie teammate Alex Simmons may end of winning the Rookie of the Year Award, but Kurtz is very deserving of being a finalist.

CALGARY, AB – MARCH 22, 2024: The Calgary Roughnecks against the Albany
FireWolves at Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday. (Photo by Jenn Pierce/NLL)

5. Alex Simmons

Alex Simmons is the boy wonder of the NLL this season. His 96 regular season points were the second most by a rookie ever in NLL history and his 19 points during the playoffs ranks him first in the league heading into the Finals. He only needs six more points to set the all-time rookie record for postseason points – he would pass Bandits’ head coach John Tavares for the record. Simmons has factored into 19 of the FireWolves’ 36 goals during the playoffs, meaning he’s contributed (scored or assisted) on 52.7% of his team’s goals during the playoffs. Simmons’ rise to fame is extraordinary and it is undeniable that the team’s success this year, in large part, has to do with his efforts all year long.

 

4. Doug Jamieson

If you aren’t on the goalie bandwagon already after the first two rounds of the NLL Playoffs, it’s time to get on board before we kick off the Finals. Doug Jamieson was very good during the regular season, but he’s been even better during the playoffs. His save percentage has gone up during the postseason and his goals against average has gone down – the movement (in the right direction) has been considerable. Jamieson has played an instrumental role in the FireWolves’ success all season long, and that has continued throughout the most important games in franchise history. It’s fair to say that the FireWolves would not be in the position they’re in without the efforts of Jamieson all season long.

Halifax at Albany 1.6.24 (Photo: William Madely)

3. Matt Vinc

As much as we like to give credit to the top offensive guys in this league, this postseason has been all about the goaltending, and no one has been better than Matt Vinc between the pipes during. Among the four goaltenders who made it to the NLL Semifinals, no one had better numbers than Vinc. His 6.85 goals against average and 88.7% save percentage are the best of the playoffs, and he’s on pace to potentially make a record amount of saves in a single postseason. If the NLL Finals went three games, and Vinc averaged the 50 saves a game he’s been posting so far during these playoffs, he finishes this postseason with a record-setting 300 saves. Not bad for a guy that has already won four NLL championships and is 41 years old.

 

2. Dhane Smith

Josh Byrne has been the Bandits’ elite finisher this year, but no one is a better facilitator than Dhane Smith. The way he zings the ball around the floor is art in motion. During the regular season, he led the NLL with a record-setting 101 assists. During the postseason, he leads all players with 13 dimes. For perspective, if the NLL Finals were to go three games, Smith would be on pace to finish the playoffs with 26 assists. That would be the second-most assists by one player in one postseason in NLL history. Add in Smith’s defensive abilities thanks to his early years in the league playing out of the back gate, and you’ve got one of the most complete players in the NLL.

Dhane Smith tried to gather a loose ball in the 4th. Buffalo Bandits at Colorado Mammoth from Ball Arena in Denver Colorado on 04/05/24 (Photo: John Harrison)

1. Josh Byrne

Josh Byrne was one the best goal scorers in the NLL during the regular season, and now he’s one of the best goal scorers of this postseason – he led the Bandits in goals during the regular season and is leading them in this category during the playoffs. Byrne has scored 25% of his team’s goals, and during Game 2 of the Semifinals, he contributed (scored or assisted) on all six of the Bandits’ goals in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Rock. When the Bandits have needed a big time play, Byrne has always delivered, which is why he is a finalist for the MVP Award for this season.

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