BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bandits are heading to the NLL Finals for the first time since 2016.
The old saying in lacrosse is that it’s a game of runs, and that was certainly the case on Saturday in the East Division Final at KeyBank Center against Toronto. The Bandits used a quick 3-0 run in the fourth quarter to pull away from the Rock and win 12-8 to advance to the NLL Finals.
That stretch was on the heels of Toronto going on a 4-0 run of their own to make it a 8-7 Buffalo lead early in the fourth, but the resilient Bandits once again showed their strength late in games by completing another huge home playoff win.
Buffalo will take on the Calgary Roughnecks in the NLL Finals, which is a best-of-three series.
“This is the best place to play in the world,” Bandits captain Steve Priolo said. “These fans are incredible. You saw them out there on their feet all the time. You don’t want to win a championship for yourself, but for everyone else around you. It carries through that locker room and right into those stands.
“You want to win a championship for this city and take it through the streets and have a party.”
Chase Fraser and Shawn Evans scored the big goals for Buffalo midway through the fourth quarter to give them the breathing space needed for the four-goal victory. Dhane Smith led the team in scoring with five points (1+4) while Priolo (0+4) and Evans (2+2) each recorded four points and Corey Small scored a team-high three goals.
Matt Vinc stopped 43 of the 51 shots he faced and kept the Rock offense at bay for most of the game. Adam Jones led the Rock in scoring with seven points (4+3), but their two leading goal scorers on the season, Tom Schreiber and Rob Hellyer, were held scoreless in this game.
“Any time you sign up for a team, you want to keep going until you get to the championship and hopefully win your last game of the season,” head coach Rich Kilgour said. “This is just another step that we took and now it’s on to the Finals.
“We found a way to win as a team. We don’t rely on just one guy to have a good game, but we rely on 17 guys to have good games.”
The game opened up with a Smith goal to give the Bandits the early lead. It became a back-and-forth quarter as Toronto quickly tied it up on the power play before Josh Byrne regained the lead for the Bandits.
Toronto’s Brock Sorensen tied the game 2-2 less than a minute later. Both teams traded a number of chances, including Small hitting the post with less than a minute left in the quarter. However, the game remained tied 2-2 after the first quarter.
Toronto’s Challen Rogers scored the Rock’s second power-play goal of the game to make it 3-2 Toronto. Buffalo responded with a very strong 6-0 run to regain control of the game. First, Small tied it up, and then Bryce Sweeting and Small scored two goals within one minute of each other to give Buffalo a 5-3 lead.
Evans gave the Bandits a three-goal lead at the half as he scored with less than one minute to go. Vinc stopped 21 of 24 shots in the first half while Toronto’s Nick Rose stopped 25 of 31 shots.
“When we get our opportunities, we need to make them count and that’s something we were able to do tonight,” Evans said. “I think early in the game it was 2-2 and he [Nick Rose] stopped almost every shot so we kept fighting and now we’re going to the championship. This is huge for this team and every guy is battling out there for one another.”
With two of the Rock’s three goals coming with the man advantage, the Bandits outscored the Rock 6-1 in even strength in the first half.
Matt Spangler found himself all alone on a breakaway just two minutes into the second half and he capitalized to make it 7-3 Bandits.
Small then completed his hat trick and that made it a five goal Bandits lead. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the rest of the quarter was all Toronto. They closed the quarter on a 3-0 run thanks to a few late goals to make it 8-6 heading to the final quarter.
“They came back and got within one goal there, but the transition came up and took advantage of that opportunity and got some goals in the back of the net,” Fraser said. “It was a great team effort tonight and hopefully we can bring a championship back to Buffalo.”
Jones scored another goal for Toronto to make it a one goal game with 12 minutes remaining. However, Chase Fraser stopped the bleeding for Buffalo by scoring his first goal of the game to make it 9-7.
Evans came up huge in the clutch yet again for the Bandits as he added an insurance goal to make it 10-7 with 8:04 left in regulation. Fraser added his second goal of the quarter shortly after Evans and it became 11-7 Bandits. Kevin Brownell provided the empty-net goal that officially put the game on ice.
“That’s been the message from the coaching staff all season is, we want to be a team offense not just an offense where one or two guys carry the majority of the load,” Small said. “My success scoring today comes from a lot of the guys around me are doing. Shawn Evans and Dhane Smith draw so much attention on that right side, Jordan Durston and Josh Byrne are setting picks to get me open and a lot of the times I’m just the guy at the end of the play who gets to tap it in the empty net.”
Game 1 of the series against Calgary will be played at 7:30 p.m. on Sat., May 18 at KeyBank Center. Game 2 will be in Calgary at the Scotiabank Saddledome at 9 p.m. on Sat., May 25. If necessary, Game 3 will be back in Buffalo at 8 p.m. on Fri., May 31.
Buffalo was swept by the Saskatchewan Rush in the NLL Finals three years ago. The Bandits last won a title back in 2008.
“You get a chance like that in 2016 to win it all and that’s all you want to do is take it to that next level,” Priolo said. “We don’t want to have that feeling from 2016 ever again so we’re going to keep pushing.”