NLL: MVP Ward backstops Mammoth to NLL championship title

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Game three of the NLL Finals was live from Banditland on Saturday night at KeyBank Center. Sixty minutes to decide the season. It had been over 5,000 days since both the Buffalo Bandits and/or the Colorado Mammoth have hoisted an NLL Cup, so this was going to be a treat.

Not sure if it was mind games, or something popped up, but we almost saw Eli McLaughlin for game three. Almost. “Liger” got the clearance just before game time, went out for warm-ups, and then ended up being a scratch right at game time. That was the story leading up to the game, however when all the dust settled, it was Dillon Ward who was the story. We all knew Ward was good, but man is he GOOD. Ward, and the Colorado Mammoth are your 2022 NLL Champions, beating Buffalo 10-8.

Before the game, Bandits’ captain Steve Priolo was asked about playing a championship game in front of 19,000+ in Buffalo.

“It’s something I’ve been waiting for for 13 years,” Priolo said. “To play for a championship in front of these fans that have been so good and so loyal.”

19,070 to be exact, and boy was it raucous. One way to eliminate that, if you’re Colorado, is to get on the board first. Cue Zed Williams, who scored on a quick shot just 24 seconds into the game. Banditland wasn’t down for long as Dhane Smith answered right back with a bouncer from distance. Josh Byrne followed up with a worm-burner of his own. 2-1 Buffalo in the blink of an eye. Things calmed down for a few defensive stops by each side, before the transition of Buffalo showed up. Ethan O’Connor sprinted down the field and took a shot that went wide, however Ian MacKay was right on the doorstep to bury the rebound. Williams got his second shortly thereafter with a nice dive at the crease. 3-2 Buffalo after one.

Colorado continued to swing the momentum at the start of the second quarter. Brett McIntyre and Sam Firth scored in the first minute to give the Mammoth the lead back. If you’re Firth, what a time to score your first career NLL goal, huh?

Buffalo’s team vacuum, Kyle Buchanan, put a stop to the Mammoth run with his first of the night after drawing a penalty. This goal seemed like it was in slow motion. Bucky was streaking off the bench and got tripped up, resulting in a delayed penalty. He then proceeded to stand right at the goal line, for what seemed like an eternity, before Byrne fired a pass, which Buchanan buried.

Dylan Kinnear gave Colorado the lead right back, only to be answered by Buchanan’s second of the night. As if the magnitude of a game three wasn’t enough, now we have a see-saw battle going on. Just as they opened the frame, Colorado closed the second with two straight. Tyson Gibson and Anthony Joaquim tickled twine, to give the Mammoth a 7-5 lead going into the half.

Matt Vinc and Dillon Ward had solid first halves considering the back-and-forth scoring. Vinc stopped 13 of 20, and Ward 20 of 25. Remember in the opening about Ward being really good? Stay tuned to the second half as to why that is.

“I think it’s a crazy environment, maybe gripping the sticks a little too tight. Not for a lack of chances, we’ll be coming out hard in the second half,” said Buchanan at halftime.

The third quarter started and the scoring came to a screeching halt. Ten-plus minutes, full of stifling defense and unreal goaltending from both netminders. The first and only goal of the quarter came from Chris Cloutier’s stick with 4:46 left in the frame. Vinc went a perfect 17 of 17 in the quarter, which is exactly what Buffalo needed. 7-6 Colorado going into the fourth.

A one-goal game with 15 minutes to play? Fasten those seatbelts, boys and girls. Connor Fields opened the scoring in the fourth just 27 seconds in to tie the game up 7-7. Unfortunately, that’s as close as Buffalo would get to hoisting the NLL Cup.

Colorado scored two straight as Williams got his hat trick and Chris Wardle got his first. Wardle’s goal was at the 9:29 mark of the quarter. The Mammoth bled the clock down with phenomenal defense and goaltending before Williams put the finishing touches on the game with his fourth of the night. Buchanan made the score look a little better, scoring his hat trick goal with seven seconds left.

Time expired and pure ecstasy came over the Mammoth bench. Your final, 10-8 Colorado.

Players of the game for Buffalo were Buchanan (3+1), Byrne (1+3) and Smith (1+2). Vinc’s performance was nothing to scoff at, stopping 37 of 47. As for Colorado, Williams (4+2), Wardle (1+5) and Ward led the way. Ward stopped 55 of 63 on the night. Unreal numbers in an unreal performance. Just to put this into perspective for you, Ward stopped 13 of 14 in the third quarter and 22 of 24 in the fourth. Rightfully so, he was named the playoff MVP.

“First place doesn’t mean anything,” said Bandits’ head coach John Tavares. “We ran into a hot team. Ward had a great game, great series. Zed Williams was hard to stop.”

Captain of the Bandits, Steve Priolo, was understandably upset after the game.

“Yeah, it hurts, mostly because it was in front of our fans,” Priolo said. “You feel like you let the city down, you let each other down.”

Dillon Ward commended his team and explained his thought process throughout the playoffs. “It was a do-or-die situation; we needed to win. Personally, I didn’t think I played my best game in game one. Game two, I wanted to put my best foot forward and have my best game of the playoffs. Game three was the same situation, so again wanted to play an awesome game, give my team confidence, give us a chance to win.”

That’s a wrap on the 2021-2022 season folks. What a year, and more importantly what a postseason. Congratulations to the Colorado Mammoth on snapping a 16-year drought and becoming the NLL Champions once again.