NLL: Ward stands tall as Mammoth punch ticket to NLL Finals

CALGARY, AB – MAY 20, 2023: The Calgary Roughnecks against the Colorado Mammoth in the West Conference Finals at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday. (Photo by Jenn Pierce/NLL)

The stage was set and it was win or go home. Game three of the West Conference Finals was live from Scotiabank Saddledome, as the Colorado Mammoth and Calgary Roughnecks prepared for war. The previous two games were decided by one goal, obviously each side taking one game. This series featured our league’s last two champions and two world-class goaltenders in Dillon Ward and Christian Del Bianco.

These two teams put on a show in a low scoring affair. Ward and the Mammoth defense stood tall, blanked the Roughnecks in the fourth quarter, and punched their ticket to the NLL Finals, winning 9-7.

Colorado went on the power play just 27 seconds into the game, but it was Calgary that scored the first goal. After a good stop by Del Bianco, the dangerous Riggers’ transition game went flying down the floor and Jeff Cornwall buried his shot. Colorado answered off the ensuing faceoff as Eli McLaughlin fired a bullet on the power play. The scoring came to a halt for the better part of seven minutes, as the defense of both sides really settled in. Jesse King and Haiden Dickson rattled off two-straight for Calgary, but Zed Williams had the answer. Kyle Waters got his first to wrap up the quarter. 4-2 Calgary after one.

One thing we know about this playoff run for Colorado, is they are to never be counted out. The Mammoth scored two in a row to begin the second quarter, one from “flyin” Ryan Lee and the other from Chris Wardle. Transition Player of the Year nominee, Zach Currier, scored to answer, and in a big way. Calgary was short handed again, and found themselves on a two-on-one. (Shocker) Currier was laying on the ground behind the net, Ward made a stop, but Currier picked up the loose ball and dunked while diving from behind the net. Wow. Colorado rattled off two more, one from Tyson Gibson and the other from Tim Edwards. 6-5 Mammoth at the break.

Both goaltenders battled in the first half and were sparkling. Ward made 14 saves on 19 shots, while Del Biano stopped 11 of 17. Keep in mind, prior to this game, Colorado was outsourcing Calgary 14-10 in the second halves of the first two games.

Calgary completely shut down the Colorado offense, all the while, retaking the lead in the third quarter. The Roughnecks only scored two goals in the frame, but they were huge. Tanner Cook got his first of the game at the 13:49 mark, and Shane Simpson scored another beautiful transition goal at the 11:42 mark. Oh, and Simpson’s was Calgary’s THIRD short handed goal of the game. The rest of the quarter was Calgary and Del Bianco sulking this one away, or so they thought. 7-6 Roughnecks after three.

Colorado answered them being shut out in the third, by shutting out Calgary in the fourth. Ward was unbelievable, so much so, that he held Calgary scoreless for 26 plus minutes to close this game out. Williams tied the game with his second of the night from behind the restraining line. This goal broke a drought of 26 plus minutes for the Colorado offense. Kudos to Del Bianco and the Calgary defense. Warren Jeffrey gave the Mammoth the lead with a nice transition goal of his own at the 6:28 mark. The next six minutes were fast and furious with chance after chance, but both goaltenders stood tall. With 20 seconds left, Williams was stripped of the ball, Calgary scooped it up and fired a shot that Ward stopped. Ward popped up and fired the ball down the floor and Connor Robinson buried the dagger into the empty net. The Mammoth are headed back to the NLL Finals. Your final from the Rough House, 9-7 Colorado.

Players of the game for Calgary were King, Cook, and Currier, who all had one goal in the game. Del Bianco was a stud all game long, but fell just short in the fourth. He made 28 saves on 37 shots. For Colorado, Williams (2+2), McLaughlin (1+2), and Jeffrey (1+2, plus 7 LBs) led the way. What’s left to say about Ward? “The Wall” lived up to that nickname, stopping 33 of 40 for the game.

“We showed a lot of resiliency out there,” said Mammoth captain Robert Hope after the game. “We have tons of confidence in our offense, we knew they could get going, we just had to wait a little bit. We’ll enjoy this, but we’ll be prepped for the championship.”

“The guys left it all out there,” said Calgary head coach Curt Malawsky. “It’s a pretty hollow feeling, you really believe you can win it. I don’t know where this goes for me, I don’t know. We’ll see down the road, but I love to be here with the Roughnecks.”

Well, it all comes down to two. The Colorado Mammoth and the Buffalo Bandits do battle for the second year in a row for the NLL Championship. If you remember, Colorado beat Buffalo, in Buffalo, in game three last year. Buffalo obviously is firing on all cylinders and looks for some revenge. Game one of the championship is Saturday May 27th at 7 pm in Buffalo. Game two is Monday May 29th at 4 pm in Colorado. Game three, if necessary, is Saturday June 3rd at 7:30 pm back in Buffalo. We’re just a few weeks away from crowning a champion, buckle up.