BUFFALO — In the final seconds, thousands belted the lyrics to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in unison.
And after such heartbreak with three National Lacrosse League finals losses in six years, good times never seemed so good as shown by the jubilation displayed amongst the Buffalo Bandits organization and its loyal fanbase.
Behind a four-goal, seven-point night from forward Josh Byrne and a 46-save outing from goaltender Matt Vinc, the Bandits redeemed themselves in front of a home crowd and defeated Colorado, 13-4, in Game 3 of the NLL championship Saturday at KeyBank Center.
The victory marked a special moment for Buffalo. In what was its 100th playoff game in franchise history, this was also the Bandits’ first NLL title since 2008 and fifth overall dating back to their inaugural season in 1992. Plus, the four goals allowed by Vinc and the Bandits defensive unit established a new NLL finals record.
Buffalo head coach John Tavares was part of the team’s last championship run 15 years ago as well as in 1992, 1995 and 1997 as a forward. He admitted after the win, coaching a team to a championship is a lot stressful then competing as a player. Considering he’s been part of the Buffalo sports community for over 30 years now, Tavares hopes the season and outcome meant a lot to the people of Buffalo.
“People just want a champion, you know?” Tavares said. “They want a championship and they want people to be happy. And, when you win, people are more happy than they are when you lose. So, it’s nice to give back to the community that supported us, for not just this year, but every year I’ve been here.”
Byrne had entered Saturday’s game with 11 postseason goals, fourth most on the team, but had missed the first two games of the series with the Mammoth due to an upper-body injury he suffered during the team’s Eastern Conference-clinching win May 13 at Toronto.
Byrne made his presence known out of the gate, by first co-assisting with Steve Priolo on Tehoka Nanticoke’s opening goal just 80 seconds into the game to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead. Then, with 0.2 seconds remaining Byrne scored his first goal in front of the home crowd in nearly a month by connecting off finals MVP Dhane Smith’s pass to give Buffalo a 2-1 lead at the end of the first quarter. Byrne then found the back of the net three more times in the third quarter, including just 28 seconds into the frame. His last goal of the night helped the Bandits expand their lead to 7-3 with 3:54 left in the third quarter.
While he was still on hand to support his teammates as best as he could, Byrne said it was “frustrating” watching from the sidelines and said he was going to make himself available for game three, regardless of how he was feeling.
“I never thought I would have to sit out a championship game, especially from an injury,” said Byrne, who has tallied 32 goals and 81 points in his postseason career. “Like, it’s just the most frustrating thing ever. But, you know, the universe has a funny way of working. And fortunately, we were able to get to game three… You couldn’t have (written) it any better today.”
Overall, the scoring production was well-rounded from Buffalo as Chase Fraser and Dhane Smith scored twice while Brad McCulley, Chris Cloutier, Matt Spanger and Max Adler all added one goal apiece while recording 60 total shots.
The scoring went hand-in-hand with the strong play from the Bandits, starting with Vinc in net, who appeared in his NLL-record 45th career playoff game, and credited the team’s game plan of “doing all the little things right.” Vinc also said winning the championship in Buffalo was what he wanted to accomplish since he arrived as a free agent nearly five years ago.
“I can’t put into words kind of what the last five minutes kind of felt,” said Vinc, who declined to answer a question on his future in the NLL as he turns 41 in a week. “Being able to look up in the crowd and know exactly where your family members are, so many people that I think supported you along the way. … It’s been a long time for Banditland to experience a championship and be able to be part that puts another banner up there. It gives you chills just talking about it.”
In the loss, Colorado had scoring provided by Eli McLaughlin (two goals) while Chris Wardle and Connor Robinson scored one goal apiece and goaltender Dillon Ward finished with 47 saves. Colorado finished with a 9-10 record.
Buffalo finished with a 15-4 record.