5/15/2019 1:00:00 PM / John Gurtler
This is a special team.
It has been eight years since the last NLL Championship for the Bandits, and now, after two non-playoff seasons, they’re back in the NLL Finals.
The drive for five is just two wins away as the best-of-three title series opens this Saturday night in Banditland against the Calgary Roughnecks. Tickets for Game 1 are on sale now.
"Last year we were a last place team, this year we are first place. It's a great league, and anything can happen on any given night. Look at Colorado beating Saskatchewan. It says a lot for the parity of the league," Bandits head coach John Tavares said.
The trip to the Finals runs deeper than the wins and losses the guys have experienced this year. Yes, the bloodline of talent is immense, but they a true band of brothers, where togetherness means everything.
One player to the next, shoulder to shoulder, in the square design stalls of their sanctuary, deep into the confines of KeyBank Center, there was grief and sorrow last Saturday for the loss of a father. Internally, the players, coaches, management, trainers, doctors, and equipment staff were consoling and generating strength for Mitch de Snoo, who lost his dad Thursday of last week.
Yet Mitch found the strength to remain vigilant to his oath, joining his team of brothers and play in Saturday night’s game. And he was at his best, shutting down Tom Schreiber and sending physical messages to intruders of his territory.
My heart still aches as I write this week’s blog. I am a part of this team, but to the extent of support and exuberance, honored to share and extract thoughts. It's a fine line, as it should be, at arms’ lengths of my closeness to this team.
Over the last 16 seasons, we've all been through a lot. But a death takes note and I, along with the entire community of Banditland, am saddened. A dad means everything for those of us that participated in team sports. Mine was there for every practice and game, and the first to speak after a win or loss. He was a pillar of strength. My God, I did the same with my son, Jake.
Bob Ryan, the long-time columnist with The Boston Globe, wrote recently, " This is why sport is one of life's greatest gifts. Pity the non-sports fan, he or she will never know what we know." And we know one thing for certain here in our community of Banditland, we are all very close and openly share our sadness and happiness.
Indeed, this is a very special team.
The East Division Final against Toronto was everything I expected. Two of the best teams in the NLL, going head-to-head, end-to-end, with superb goaltending, defense, transition and goal scoring. Indeed, the Bandits were the better team.
Everyone was involved on both ends, and, what has been their success this year is when everyone shares in scoring. Fifteen Bandit players combined in scoring points for the 12-8 win and the right to advance to the NLL Cup Finals.
Corey Small had his backswing in perfect position, netting three, and Steve Priolo scooped up nine loose balls and recorded four assists as well. Matt Vinc, now 21-10 in postseason play, was again stellar with 43 saves.
"Every shift counts as we have to be ready for anything. We can win high scoring games and we can also win the close ones," said Bandits defenseman Justin Martin. "It's all about stopping the scoring runs and keeping momentum in our direction."
The Calgary Roughnecks are one of the finest teams in the National Lacrosse League, finishing 6-4 in their last 10 games of the regular season, and now, with their two postseason wins, bring a 5-0 streak to Buffalo. They are scary good. This whole league is good.
Like the Bandits, the Roughnecks have great goaltending in Christian Del Bianco, a strong defense and transition crew, and loaded up front with scoring power.
Dane Dobbie, the NLL's regular season scoring champion with 47 goals and 68 assists for 115 points, is having a career run this season. In 27 playoff games, Dobbie has 125 points (58+67), including five goals and eight assists in this postseason.
And the talents of Curtis Dickson (35+46) are not to be denied. As we have seen, Dickson can score in the most awkward of positions. The nine-year veteran Roughneck has scored 102 points (60+42) in 22 playoff games, including six goals and five assists this season.
Between the two crafty forwards, they registered 73 points (34+39) in their last five games of the regular season. Both with 17 goals and Dobbie the edge 20-19 in assists. Rhys Duch (27+47) has 71 playoff points and, Jesse King is back from injury and has already made his presence known with three goals and six assists in their two playoff games.
Dan MacRae and Zach Currier lead the way on defense, including mentoring the 6-foot-7, 240-pound rookie Reece Callies and another first-rounder, Eli Salama. MacRae has played all nine seasons with Calgary and has 23 games of playoff experience. Currier had 22 points (6+16) and 34 caused turnovers. Another rookie defender and first rounder, Shane Simpson, played in 10 games with a 3+7 mark.
Del Bianco had a strong regular season campaign with a 10-8 record and a .782 save percentage. The fourth-year pro was the workhorse of the league, with over 1,075 minutes played and made a league high 716 saves. Too, the young netminder is pretty crafty with his outlet passes, registering 12 assists this regular season.
This series will be a great match-up between Vinc (.864 save percentage and 7.13 GAA) and Del Bianco (.867 save percentage and a 7.50 GAA)
"The Buffalo Bandits have shown up all year, and they will show up again for game one of the NLL Finals," Tavares said.
And there is no place like Banditland.
"That’s why all the games during the regular season mattered so we could be playing in front of the crowd in Banditland. This is a tough spot to play for anybody to play."
Coverage of game one of the NLL Finals this Saturday night at Key Bank Center will start with B/R Live's pregame show at 7 p.m. The half-hour event will feature updates and stories from the field to the gatherings outside.
Radio coverage will tune-up with the pregame show at 7 p.m. on WGR Sports Radio 550 and WGWE 105.9FM in Salamanca. Randy Mearns and Steve Bermel will join me to set the scene for the game between the Bandits and Roughnecks. Head coach Rich Kilgour will go 1-on-1 and we'll chat with Josh Byrne.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.