Friday, May 24, 2024

The 2023-24 Season

It had all gone so easily for the Buffalo Bandits in the spring of 2023. The Bandits had been the best team in the National Lacrosse League for much of the season, and more or less proved it in the spring playoffs. When Buffalo fielded its best llineup, no opponent could match it. 

But the seasonal calendar turned after the team ended its championship drought that had extended back to 2008, as it always did. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that while the most of the roster was back, there were some subtle changes that had altered the composition of the team. 

For example, Ethan O’Connor had signed with Rochester. Faceoff specialist Max Adler couldn't juggle his schedule enough to return to the team. There were injuries at the start of the season that sidelined such players as Adam Bomberry and Bryce Sweeting. There were new faces around, such as young players like Cam Wyers and Zach Belter. Goalie Steven Orleman was picked up from New York in a complicated three-way trade with Saskatchewan that sent Nathaniel Kozevnikov to the Rush. 

"(Steve Dietrich) and I have had this conversation many times," coach John Tavares said before the season. "You want to build a nice nucleus, and you want to add to it every year – one, two, three spots. You can always get better. You need a good mix of veterans and guys in their first, second, or third year. That’s the ideal combination. If you have too many young guys, they aren’t experienced. If you have too many older guys, they get content. So it’s nice to have a nice mix. It keeps everyone on their toes. It’s competitive, and you get the best results when you are pushed by teammates."

General managers of sports teams worry for a living, and Dietrich was no exception. "I worry that obviously there’s a bull’s-eye on us," he said. "Other teams have gotten better. A lot of things went our way last year. Teams are a lot closer to us than a lot of people think they are because of the scores. I worry about everyone catching up to us."

Dietrich didn't know how right he would be when he said that. The Bandits were about to embark on a season that would be anything but the proverbial cakewalk.

The season started on December 9 in Albany. For the second straight season, an opening-night matchup against the FireWolves proved empty. The Bandits gave up eight goals in the second period, and never recovered in a 17-13 loss. The game was their first look at rookie Alex Simmons of Albany, who had five goals in his NLL debut. They'd see more of him later. 

The next order of business was the initial home game of the season, which meant it was a night for banner-raising. The championship flag joined the others in the rafters of the KeyBank Center. A crowd of 17,200 turned out, a signal that the team' attendance would take a good-sized jump (+2,200) during the coming season. Then the Bandits took care of San Diego, 12-9. Josh Byrne had four goals and Dhane Smith had seven assists to lead the team in those categories. They started a trend that lasted through the end of the playoffs - the offense would be led by Byrne's scoring and Smith's passing. 

After a bye week, the Bandits had some defensive breakdowns during a fourth-quarter run by Georgia. The Swarm held on for a 9-8 victory. Buffalo rebounded on January 6 with a 12-8 win over Colorado in a rematch of the preceding season's Finals. A week later, the Bandits added a nice five-goal run in the fourth quarter to take control in a 15-13 win in Rochester. In between, the Bandits picked up Cory Highfield from Rochester for a second-round pick in 2024 and a third-round selection in 2025.

Still, the team wasn't firing on all cylinders. On January 19, the New York Riptide scored seven straight goals in the second quarter of a game in Buffalo. That was enough to lead to a 15-13 win over the Bandits.

“It’s just a little adversity, right?” Chase Fraser said. “It brings us closer together. It’s that dogfight in you. We’ll have to come out hot in the next two-thirds of the season.”

For a while, the loss seemed like a wake-up call. Buffalo went up to Hamilton and knocked off the powerful Toronto Rock, 16-14. That was followed by a 15-14 win over Rochester.  The Bandits were feeling good about themselves entering a February bye week - their last of the season. The game was noteworthy because Dhane Smith reached 1,000 career points.

“That’s a great accomplishment; Dhane’s a great player,” Tavares said. “I thought he had a great game. For me personally, I hated milestones. I always wanted to get it out of the way. I’m happy for him that he got his 1,000th and got it out of the way.”

That made the collapse of the team that much more surprising. On February 16, Buffalo had an 8-2 lead over Halifax. Somehow, the Thunderbirds erased that margin to take a 14-12 win. What was even worse was that Matt Vinc was injured in the game (finger) and would be out for a while. Vinc and his defense hadn't been top form during the course of the season, but the goalie's backups were relatively untested. 

That inexperience showed when the Bandits lost to visiting Albany, 13-10, on February 24. A week later, a trip to British Columbia proved fruitless, as lowly Vancouver registered 13-12 win. The Bandits were 5-6. If they didn't turn around their fortunes soon, there was a chance they might miss the playoffs. The NLL had altered its postseason structure, eliminating divisions and placing the top eight teams into brackets.  Simply qualifying for the playoffs was going to be a struggle. 

"When we are 5-6 in Vancouver, I wasn't expecting two (championships) in a row," Dietrich said. 

Vinc returned to the lineup on March 8 against Saskatchewan, and he was solid in a game that must be unique in the history of indoor lacrosse.It's been said that the sport is one filled with runs, yet no team ever led by more than one goal during the entire contest. Tehoka Nanticoke ended the suspense with an overtime goal, and Buffalo was back at .500. 

“I’ve got to give credit to our team for ending the three-game losing streak,” Tavares said. “We just couldn’t seem to pull away. But we stuck in there and battled. It was a nice to see a full, 60-minute game.”

That game also marked the debut of Connor Farrell, a faceoff specialist. The Bandits had not really replaced Adler in that role, and it was a trouble spot for the team until that point. Farrell proved to be an important addition, supplying his team with extra possessions for the rest of the season.

Before the next game, Dietrich took an unexpected big swing at the trading deadline. He acquired veteran defenseman Paul Dawson in an exchange of draft choices. Giving up a pair of second-rounders seemed like a lot for a 38-year-old, but Dietrich thought he could be a difference-maker.

"I knew he would help on a man short," Dietrich said. "I knew he would be a presence in our room, a calming presense. Steve Priolo had taken so much on himself, and I thought Paul would take a little bit of pressure off him in the leadership role. Paul and Connor Farrell were big, plus getting Adam Bomberry back - it all solidified the back end. The offense is the offense; it's the best in the game. We just needed to get better defensively." 

“The last couple of years in this league, we’re struggled on a couple of teams that haven’t been great,” Dawson said. “As an athlete, all’s you want to do is have that chance to win. Coming here, I knew this team could do some damage, so I was super-excited. It was awesome. This is why you play games like this.”

Dawson helped right away. Buffalo knocked off Toronto again, this time by 14-12, and scored four straight goals at the end of the game to pull it out. It looked as if a sleeping giant had awakened. 

“We had to be on the right side of the emotional scale, and it felt like we were in the box early but we settled down and it showed,” Smith said. “We’re not the Bandits from last year, but we’re still a good team. We have to find our roles and fine a different way to win. We won those close games last year but lost them this year. We just have to keep building.”

But that good feeling only lasted for a game. The Bandits went to Texas and had a lead with only 53 seconds left on Nanticoke's goal. But Panther City tied the game with 10 seconds to go on a goal by ex-Bandit Callum Crawford, and won it in overtime. 

Therefore, the Bandits were 7-7 with four games left. Virtually every game had been close throughout the season until that point, and the team was 5-5 in games decided by one or two goals. In other words, Buffalo had to stop letting opponents from hanging around for so long and start crushing their hopes before the fourth quarter. Helping their task was the fact that Buffalo was scheduled to finish the season against four teams that - as it turned out - wouldn't make the playoffs. 

The homestretch started with a much needed 18-12 win in Philadelphia on March 30. Buffalo scored six straight goals in the fourth quarter to blow the game open. Then came a trip to Colorado, where Byrne scored the tying goal and Smith added the game-winner and clincher in a 13-11 victory. On April 13, Buffalo was far too good for Calgary in a 14-7 victory in the home finale. The win wrapped up a playoff spot.

“It’s been a long season, and a tough grind,” Byrne said. “I’m proud of our guys sticking with it. We could have folded, with a couple of losses in a row. But it feels like we’re starting to play our best ball.”

Finally, the Bandits simply outclassed Las Vegas in a 14-5 victory. It had been quite a closing stretch. Buffalo had won its last four games and six of its last seven to finish at 11-7 - losing a tiebreaker to Albany for third place. Byrne led the league in scoring with 135 points, and added 53 goals (third). Smith had a record 101 assists. The teammates combined for 269 points, demolishing the record for most points by two players on the same team.  

The regular-season numbers for Buffalo were similar to the previous season's. The Bandits’ averaged 13.2 goals per game in the regular season, a jump of 1.3 goals over 2022-23. But the defense was a bit more leaky, going from 10.6 to 11.8. The difference was about the same: this season’s +1.4 to last season’s 1.3.

The team did quite well in the league awards department. Byrne received his first Most Valuable Player trophy, and also was named the Offensive Player of the Year and a first-team all-NLL pick. Smith was a finalist for the MVP trophy, and made the NLL's second team. Ian MacKay also was a second-team all-NLL selection.

The Bandits felt better about themselves after the closing run, but the balance in the league meant no easy nights figured to be ahead. Buffalo drew Georgia in the opening round, and the Swarm already knew how to win in the KeyBank Center. This was a terrific game, filled with tension under the circumstances. The Bandits finally picked up some breathing room by taking an 8-5 lead. Yet Georgia scored four straight goals to retake the lead with 6:34 left regular. Kyle Buchanan came through to tie the score with 5:55 left. As the minutes ticked by from there, it was almost hard to breathe. Buffalo seemed to score a game-winning goal in the final moment, but Smith's shot crossed the line an instant too late. 

“It’s giving me a heart attack,” Tavares quipped.“It’s very fun, especially when you play in this building,”

But Byrne ended the suspense with a goal at 4:01 of overtime - the first overtime playoff goal scored by the Bandits at home in history. It also was the second overtime playoff goal in franchise history; the first was by Tavares in 1992, and it gave the Bandits their first championship. 

Buffalo advanced to next round against a familiar foe, Toronto. The Rock hadn't beaten Buffalo in a playoff series since 2012, but Toronto did have home-field advantage in semifinals. That edge was less than decisive, thanks to a smothering defense. Buffalo didn't even give up a goal in the 39 minutes of the game. By the second half, the Rock could barely get a shot on goal at times. It led to an easy 12-4 Buffalo victory. Vinc set a team playoff record that night with a save percentage of .930. If you guessed that Dawson had become a major contributor to the team's success, you'd be right.

“When (general manager Steve Dietrich) and I were exploring some possibilities about who he had in mind at the trade deadline, the easy fit was Paul because of our relationship,” Vinc said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the league like him. The comfort level is there, and ultimately so is the trust. I trust what he’s going to do on the floor. I trust what he’s going to say in the locker room. I thought it would be a good fit. And it’s not just a good fit on the man-down (unit); it’s a good fit everywhere. The leadership is being shown. He’s been a captain on our teams. He’s hungry and ready.”

Game Two - two nights later - figtured to be tougher, and it was. Toronto played more than 45 minutes of great defense of its own, and had an 8-4 lead with about 13 minutes left to play. The Bandits responded with one of the great comebacks in team history. They scored the next six goals - three of them by Chase Fraser - to win by a score of 10-8.

“It was the weirdest shift of events I’ve ever been a part of,” Smith said. “Every goal was bang-bang-bang. It felt like a movie.” 

That left the final as the Bandits and FireWolves had an unlikely meeting for the NLL championship. There was some silly arguing about which team was the "favorite," as if that matters. But while Buffalo was the defending champion, Albany had the home-field advantage in the best-of-three series and had beaten the Bandits twice in the regular season. But that was before Buffalo's defensive "transformation." 

After an even and loose first period, the Bandits tightened up their game from there. They spotted Albany a 6-5 lead at halftime, and then scored seven of the nine goals registered in the second half for a 12-8 victory. Smith had 11 points while Byrne had nine. Vinc stopped 37 of 45 shots for a save percentage of .822 - well into elite territory.

The teams traveled by bus to Buffalo, as the second game of the series was scheduled for the next night in the KeyBank Center. No one was too sure about how the quick turnaround might affect the players, but everyone was sure the building would be packed (19,070) and they would be ready for the occasion. Electric can be a cliche to describe the atmosphere, but it applied on this night. 

The good feelings built starting with the very first goal. Buchanan took a pass while cutting through slot and scored on a one-timed, behind-the-back, short-handed goal. Buffalo never trailed in the game, but could only trade a few runs with the FireWolves through the first 33 minutes. Then the Bandits got rolling, five straight goals to take a 14-8 lead. Fraser had three of this goals to bring his game-total to five, tying an NLL record. 

It felt like the game was over, and is probably was. Still, Albany scored the game's final four goals to cut the lead to 14-12. The FireWolves never gave up, and it would have been easy to do so. The final goal came with eight seconds left, just before the crowd was ready to uncork its biggest celebration of the season. But eventually, MacKay found himself with the ball near the Bandits' goal and time about to expire. It was the second straight year for him to lead a championship celebration in that way. 

Byrne was named the MVP of the playoffs to put one more trophy in his place for the season, although a good case could have been made for Smith or Vinc. Smith bacame the league's all-time leader in assist in playoff games, breaking Tavares' record. It was championship number six for the Bandits, and the second time they had won back-to-back titles (1992, 1993).  

“I always think the most recent one is my favorite one,” Tavares said his sixth ring - his second as a coach. “After a few days or months pass by, you always think back to the first one in ’92. But they are all special in different ways. Being 5-6 made this special. … Last year we were dominant. I think where we came from during the year makes this special.”

“Winning last year, there was a target on our back,” MacKay said. “The storm we had this year – it’s not that no one had a chance, because the parity in the league in incredible. Look at the Albany team. They had three wins last year, and they’re in the Finals. … I think after this, there will be a bigger target on our back. We’ll enjoy it, celebrate it. I’m happy for everyone.”

In other words, after a down-and-up season, the Bandits again finished with a big target on their backs going into summer vacation. They wouldn't have had it any other way.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

MVPs of the NLL's Playoffs

Ever try to find a list of the league's most valuable players during the playoffs. It doesn't exist anywhere. It's another tiny reason why I miss the league's media guide, which died a while back. 

So for everyone's future reference, here it is:

2024 - Josh Byrne, Buffalo Bandits

2023 - Dhane Smith, Buffalo Bandits

2022 - Dillon Ward, Colorado Mammoth

2019 - Dane Dobbie, Calgary Roughnecks

2018 - Jeff Shattler, Saskatchewan Rush

2017 - Lyle Thompson, Georgia Swarm

2016 - Aaron Bold, Saskatchewan Rush

2015 - Matt Matthews, Saskatchewan Rush

2014 - Dan Dawson, Rochester Knighthawks

2013 - Cody Jamieson, Rochester Knighthawks

2012 - Cody Jamieson, Rochester Knighthawks

2011 - Bob Watson, Toronto Rock

2010 - Lewis Ratcliff, Washington Stealth

2009 - Josh Sanderson, Calgary Roughnecks

2008 - Mark Steenhuis, Buffalo Bandits

2007 - John Grant Jr., Rochester Knighthawks

2006 - Gavin Prout, Colorado Mammoth

2005 - Colin Doyle, Toronto Rock

2004 - Curtis Palidwor, Calgary Roughnecks

2003 - Bob Watson, Toronto Rock

2002 - Colin Doyle, Toronto Rock

2001 - Dallas Eliuk, Philadelphia Wings

2000 - Dan Stroup, Toronto Rock

1999 - Colin Doyle, Toronto Rock

1998 - Dallas Eliuk, Philadelphia Wings

1997 - Steve Dietrich, Rochester Knighthawks

1996 - Pat O'Toole - Buffalo Bandits

1995 - Gary Gait, Philadelphia Wings

1994 - Paul Gait, Philadelphia Wings

1993 - John Tavares, Buffalo Bandits

1992 - John Tavares, Buffalo Bandits

1991 - Gary Gait, Detroit Turbos

1990 - Brad Kotz, Phliadelphia Wings

1989 - John Tucker, Philadelphia Wings

1988 - Larry Quinn and Jeff Goldberg, New Jersey Saints

1987 - Buzz Sheain, Baltimore Thunder

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Bandits' Margin of Result by Year

I received a note on from a fan who said all of the close games early in 2023-24 were killing him. 

I went to work. And he was on to something. 

Here's a list of the average margin of victory in a Bandits' regular-season game by year. The Bandits were headed to a record in terms of smallest average margin in their games. But then, things went "wrong." Buffalo won games by six, seven and nine goals down the stretch. Still, the average margin was the smallest since 2010, and that was by a margin of less than a tenth of a goal (2.944 now to 2.938 then).

By the way, the Bandits set a record last season for most overtime games in a season at four. Better yet, they won all four. Flip those results and the team would have gone 10-8 instead of its 14-4.

Year - Total/Games - Avg. Margin - Top Blowout - OT Games

2023-24 - 53/18 - 2.94 - 9 goals - 2 OTG

2022-23 - 64/18 - 3.55 - 11 goals - 4 OTG

2021-22 - 80/18 - 4.44 - 12 goals - 2 OTG

2019-20 - 36/11 - 3.27 - 7 goals - 2 OTG

2018-19 - 90/18 - 5.00 - 11 goals - 3 OTG

2017-18 - 92/18 - 5.11 - 13 goals - 2 OTG

2016-17 - 71/18 - 3.94 - 13 goals - 2 OTG

2016 - 67/18 - 3.72 - 7 goals - 2 OTG

2014-15 - 68/18 - 3.77 - 9 goals - 3 OTG

2013-14 - 60/18 - 3.33 - 11 goals- 2 OTG

2013 -  68/16 - 4.25 - 14 goals - 1 OTG

2012 - 72/16 - 4.50 - 11 goals - 2 OTG

2011 - 48/16 - 3.00 - 9 goals - 2 OTG

2010 - 47/16 - 2.94 - 7 goals - 3 OTG

2009 - 73/16 - 4.56 - 17 goals - 3 OTG

2008 - 63/16 - 3.94 - 9 goals - 2 OTG

2007 - 61/16 - 3.81 - 10 goals - 2 OTG

2006 - 46/16 - 2.88 - 10 goals - 2 OTG

2005 - 66/16 - 4.13 - 11 goals - 1 OTG

2004 - 45/16 - 2.81 - 8 goals - 3 OTG

2003 - 79/16 - 4.94 - 14 goals - 0 OTG

2002 - 46/16 - 2.88 - 11 goals - 2 OTG

2001 - 76/14 - 5.43 - 13 goals - 1 OTG

2000 - 48/12 - 4.00 - 11 goals - 1 OTG

1999 - 27/12 - 2.25 - 7 goals - 2 OTG

1998 - 47/12 - 3.91 - 9 goals - 1 OTG

1997 - 31/10 - 3.10 - 8 goals - 1 OTG

1996 - 55/10 - 5.50 - 22 goals - 0 OTG

1995 - 35/8 - 4.38 - 11 goals - 1 OTG

1994 - 38/8 - 4.75 - 8 goals- 0 OTG

1993 - 35/8 - 4.38 - 10 goals - 1 OTG

1992 - 62/8 - 7.75 - 13 goals - 0 OTG

Updated on April 28, 2024

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Bandits' Blown Leads and Comebacks (2017-18 to 2023-24)

The Bandits had an 8-2 lead in Halifax on February 16, 2024, but still lost by a score of 14-12.


This begs the question ... have the Bandits ever had a six-goal lead and lost the game before? It's going to take a little research to go back to the start of records, but at least I've started it. In case of multiple leads of the same margin, I've taken the last one.

Lead - Opponent - Date - Final

6 (8-2) - @Halifax - 12/16/24 - 14-12

4 (5-1) - Toronto - 4/30/22 - 10-7 

4 (5-1) - Toronto - 12/21/18 - 17-12

3 (8-5) - @Rochester - 1/20/23 - 15-12

3 (4-1) - Colorado - 3/18/23 - 13-8 

3 (6-3) - @Colorado - 6/11/22 - 11-9

3 (3-0) - Vancouver - 1/13/18 - 11-10o

2 (7-5) - Georgia - 12/29/23 - 9-8

2 (3-1) - @Colorado - 5/29/23 (Playoffs)

2 (3-1) - Colorado - 5/18/22 (Playoffs)

2 (2-0) - Halifax - 12/28/19 - 15-10 

2 (4-2) - @Calgary - 5/25/19 - 14-13o

2 (2-0) - Toronto - 4/21/18 - 16-11

2 (2-0) - Rochester - 4/28/18 - 15-13

Looking at the team's best comebacks might be more gratifying for its fans:

Lead - Opponent - Date - Final

7 (12-5) - @Saskatchewan - 1/19/18 - 16-15o

4 (5-1) - Rochester - 2/4/23 - 13-10

4 (6-2) - @Philadelphia - 1/27/23 - 13-9

4 (8-4) - Philadelphia - 2/18/23 - 13-12o

4 (6-2) - @Philadelphia - 3/8/19 - 12-11o 

4 (4-0) - Toronto - 3/23/19 - 8-6

3 (8-5) - @Rochester - 1/13/24 - 15-13

3 (9-6) - Halifax - 3/10/23 - 10-9o 

3 (5-2) - @San Diego - 3/25/23 - 7-6o

3 (5-2) - Toronto - 4/22/23 - 11-10

3 (17-14) @New York - 1/30/22 - 18-17o 

3 (9-6) - Halifax - 3/26/22 - 16-11

3 (7-4) - Calgary - 2/18/19 - 12-10

o - Indicates overtime game

Updated through February 18, 2024

Friday, January 19, 2024

Biggest Difference in Goals Scored by Halves (2010 to 2023-24)

On January 13, 2024, the Bandits and Knighthawks piled up 20 goals in the first half. Then, in the second half, they only combined for eight. It was sort of like watching a different sport. 

Is that a big difference as these things go? I needed to find out. Let's go back a ways and see how it compares (overtime does not count in the second half), and it turns out you have to go back to 2016 to find a bigger difference:

No. (1st - 2nd) - Opponent - Date

13 (7-20) - Vancouver - 3/25/16

12 (20 - 8) - @Rochester - 1/13/24

12 (18-6) - Philadelphia - 4/7/12

11 (20-9) - @ New England - 4/26/15

10 (10 - 20) - Rochester - 1/31/20 

10 (10 - 20) - @New England - 2/19/17

9 (6 - 15) - Toronto - 4/22/23 

9 (5 - 14) - @Toronto - 5/21/22 (Playoff Game)

9 (9 - 18) - @New England - 3/23/18

9 (7 - 16) - New England - 4/4/15

9 (14- 5) - Minnesota - 4/12/14

9 (15 - 6) - @Rochester - 5/17/14 (Playoff Game) 

9 (10-19) - Saskatchewan - 3/8/24

9 (16-7) - Boston - 4/24/10

Updated on April 24, 2024

The 2023-24 Season

It had all gone so easily for the Buffalo Bandits in the spring of 2023. The Bandits had been the best team in the National Lacrosse League ...