Winning came easily to the Buffalo Bandits this season, and they got hooked on the highs that came with the success of their 14-4 regular season.
It was a harder road for the Calgary Roughnecks, however, to the NLL Cup best-of-three final series. The adversity they faced during a 10-8 season grizzled them. It made them even hungrier in the Bandits, and it showed in their 10-7 win in the opening game of the NLL Cup on Saturday night at Keybank Center. 15,747 Banditland fans went home wondering if their party is over.
“What a grind,” Rhys Duch marvelled after the game. “But I think we know that that’s the kind of game we’re used to playing and we want to be playing in and I think it worked out. Thank goodness for our defense and Del Bianco to keep us in it.”
Neither team has won a championship this decade; the Bandits last won in 2008 and the Roughnecks in 2009. Each team has built a roster they believe can bring them another title.
Leading both of those teams are their goalies in 36-year-old Matt Vinc and 21-year-old Christian Del Bianco. Vinc, of course, has three championships under his belt. Del Bianco is in his first NLL Cup, but has plenty of Minto Cup experience. He’s not naïve in what to expect and was cool and poised on Saturday night, making 48 saves.
“Its dumbfounding,” Duch said of the youngster’s play. “He was great all year… what a pleasure to watch. He’s bailed us out of many situations. He’s just so confident and he has every right to be.”
Del Bianco matched Vinc save-for-save in the first half, resulting in a 2-2 score at halftime. He praised Vinc’s consistency while giving refusing to take credit for his own stellar play.
“The big thing is our defense taking really good lanes, blocking shots and then letting me see the easy shots,” he said. “It all adds up and there’s got to be a lot of credit to them. Everybody’s buying into the bigger goal. Everybody’s sacrificing their bodies, getting into their lanes and doing all the little things that are making us successful.”
Duch cracked open the scoring at 8:35, blasting a shot from the point past Vinc glove side, the first of several on the night to beat him on the left. Shawn Evans found Corey Small all alone in front of Christian Del Bianco to make it 1-1 with 1:23 remaining in the period.
The hockey-like pace of the game continued into the second. Dhane Smith found an open lane up the middle, converting a fallen Evans’ pass to give the Bandits a 2-1 lead at 9:39. Duch’s second goal tied the game at two after an extended Roughnecks’ possession had tired out the Bandits’ defense.
The Bandits’ Corey Small said that he knew goals would be at a premium after such a stingy first half.
“They got a couple goal run there and offensively we need to do a better job of scoring in bunches and we didn’t do that… we need better shots and just taking that half second or split second to pick a spot rather than shoot blind because [Del Bianco] was definitely challenging us as shooters and we just need to be more accurate with our shots.”
Del Bianco made veteran saves throughout the game, including a second-quarter point-blank stop on Small who was trying to finish Priolo’s two-on-one.
“He played fantastic and he keeps us in games,” Dane Dobbie praised. “He always gives us a chance to win. He comes up with big saves when we need him. He’s been doing it this playoff run and all season. We feed off of him.”
Shortly after Evans put the Bandits up 3-2 in the third, Del Bianco stopped Mitch deSnoo on a breakaway. Calgary captain Dan MacRae then went the other way to beat Vinc glove side for his first-ever playoff goal and a 3-3 tie. Del Bianco’s next great play was a stick-save on a shovel shot from Corey Small. On the next possession, Curtis Dickson forced his way past defender Bryce Sweeting with a fake to score on a twister. A low shot from Dobbie gave Calgary a two-goal cushion with 10 seconds left.
Unhappy with the score, Chase Fraser took a couple of shots at Zach Currier at the buzzer, drawing a crowd and some roughing between the teams. That and the score sent the Roughnecks to the fourth quarter with all the energy.
“What we’re really trying to get across as a team right now is to stay even and not too high, not too low and ride it out,” Dobbie said. “We were good at that tonight and pulling each other together. There was adversity and we overcame it. There’s going to be adversity next game and we just have to deal with it and hopefully come out on the right end.”
Although the final score was 10-7, Calgary won the game in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter thanks to a two-goal swing. Ethan O’Connor’s rebound goal was waved off so Dobbie went down and scored at the other end. Had the call on O’Connor been overturned upon challenge, Calgary would have been down a single goal. Instead, with the challenge ruled inconclusive, the Roughnecks went up 6-3.
“We play to be part of something bigger than ourselves and when it’s not going up front, it’s heartbreaking when we can’t stop them on the back end,” Bandit’s captain Steve Priolo said. “We put that on us. We should have stopped them, because we know our offense can get going.”
Buffalo did respond with a power play goal from Small, but the Roughnecks had the energy, scoring three in a row for a 9-4 lead to take the loyal Bandits’ fans right out of the game. Dobbie completed his hat trick in just 2:32 of playing time. Jesse King and Dan Taylor scored goals 45 seconds apart.
One thing missing from this game was a highlight-reel goal from the home side; the Bandits are more than capable of sending their fans to their feet with their athletic feats. So late in the fourth, they made it interesting. Josh Byrne came back with a pair of goals, and Chase Fraser scored one of his now-patented high-flying goals, emphatically bouncing a shot down past Del Bianco while vertically bicycling his way through the crease.
Fraser’s was the last goal Del Bianco would allow, however; he made a couple of saves off of always dangerous Dhane Smith before Mitch Wilde silenced the crowd once again with an empty netter with a minute and a half left. Wilde was then checked into the boards by Ian MacKay, who deservedly received a major penalty for the emotional but unnecessary play.
Dobbie’s six points (3G/3A) led the Roughnecks. Duch had 2G/2A, King 1G/3A, and Dickson and MacRae each one goal and one assist. Riley Loewen chipped in three assists.
Buffalo was led by Evans’ one goal and four assists, Byrne’s two goals and two assists, Small’s 2G/1A and Smith’s 1G/1A. After a difficult fourth quarter, Matt Vinc finished with 34 saves.
The Bandits now have to find a way to take the energy from Banditland to Calgary with them in order to force a third and deciding game in the series. It’ll be a hostile environment, but the Bandits aren’t worried.
“I feed off of the hostility,” Priolo deadpanned in a rare moment of levity in the post-game press conference, “just the way I feed off of our fans pumping us up.
“Something we can do to carry [our fan’s energy] forward is pushing the ball a little more, maybe a little earlier. Maybe look for a faster paced game.”
Meanwhile, all the pressure is on the Roughnecks to hoist the NLL Cup on their home turf.
“We’re always excited to go home,” Dobbie said. “Our fans are great and they’ll be behind us the whole game, we know that. We have a job to do and the guys in the room are hungry right now.”
Game two is set for Saturday, May 25 at 9 p.m. ET.