Buffalo in the NLL Finals. Sounds familiar? For the third straight season, the Bandits will play for a chance at a championship, and while the previous two attempts didn’t end the way they wanted, things feel different this time in Buffalo, who is looking for their first NLL Cup in 25 years. Let’s look at how the Bandits have overcome the heartache and used it as motivation.
Buffalo has had a lot of success since they were formed in 1992. They have won 13 division titles, seven conference titles, and four championships. Even with that winning tradition, they have been known for coming up short lately. They have made the NLL Cup final four of the last six seasons (which includes this season), and the three times prior, they have lost.
In 2016 Buffalo went 13-5 and won the East. Dhane Smith was MVP, and Buffalo rolled past New England in the East Finals. They faced the Saskatchewan Rush and lost the series 2-0. The Bandits played the Rush tough, losing by three combined goals in the two-game series.
In 2019 Buffalo again was the top seed entering the playoffs. They defeated New England, followed by Toronto to win the East. They played Calgary and were swept once again in the NLL Cup.
After the long Covid-19 break, Buffalo came out and proved to everyone that they were still the top dogs in the East. Dhane Smith won his second MVP leading Buffalo to a 14-4 record. They handled Albany in round one and snuck past Toronto in the East Finals, winning both games by one goal. It seemed like Buffalo was on their way to a title, but they were upset by the Colorado Mammoth, losing game three in Buffalo.
Unfortunately, Buffalo has a painful history in the playoffs, whether it’s the Bills’ failures since 1965 or the Sabres still needing a Stanley Cup. However, even with their previous championships, the Bandits are hoping to avoid being included in the long history of failures.
“We’re here to do a job that we haven’t been able to get done the past two times,” Bandits forward Chris Cloutier said. “We’ve got to come with a different mentality and come ready to play and not take any games off, not take a minute off.”
A lot is at stake for Buffalo. If the Bandits aren’t able to get over the hump, could it be time to shake up the roster? Matt Vinc isn’t getting any younger; if the Bandits don’t win it this year, does Vinc come back at age 41 for one more shot with the Bandits? John Tavares is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen, but he might be labeled as a coach who “can’t win the big one.” You never want to look ahead, but if Buffalo doesn’t win this year, there might be changes before next season.
It’s not all doom and gloom. This Buffalo Bandits team has a different look and feel compared to the previous two years. They have more grit and toughness to them and more resilience. Dhane Smith commented on that after their playoff win against Rochester. “We found ways to win. I think that was the difference from this year than last year. I think last year we were a little bit cocky, and we were the team to beat.”
Having that chip on their shoulder, and battling through injuries, has helped the Bandits find chemistry throughout the season, but Smith knows that it doesn’t matter how well you play in the regular. What matters is what happens in the postseason. “We need to work together, and everyone needs to step up. I know for myself I need to do the dirty things, especially in the playoffs. It’s never going to be handed to us.”
They say, “third time’s a charm,” and the Buffalo Bandits hope that saying stays true. This Bandits team may have some similar names as the previous two seasons, but the team has made some changes to their game and mentality this season. Hopefully, the team and the city of Buffalo will be able to end the heartbreak and capture their first NLL cup since 2008.