NLL Finals Showcase Athleticism, Skill and Heart
Photo: Sara Schmidle] The Calgary defense made life miserable for any Buffalo Bandit that ventured into the middle.
From start to finish, the 2019 National Lacrosse League finals were a humdinger.
Heading into the championship series, both teams brimmed with talent at every position, which asked the question where would one might falter. Initially, I looked for Buffalo’s transition to make or break its chances of getting a leg up on the competition. This group had the green light all year and was lethal.
In Game 1, except for a five-minute stretch late in the first half, transition was scarce as both teams played territorial in a sandbox style tug-of-war.
Early on it was apparent this series wasn’t for the faint of heart. On display was big boys lacrosse. Anybody who thinks they can play at this level should think again and watch the series one more time. The punishment of the inside game coupled with the extra grace from the referees meant those who dared to go through the middle would pay full price for their trip. Case in point; the scorer of the winning overtime marker Rhys Duch.
Midway through his championship celebration, Duch made his way to the medical table to get his chin sewn up. The offensive players from both teams took a continuous beat down. The size and athleticism of the finalists in this series showed the NLL at a whole new level of give and take.
In Game 1, Calgary wrestled the lead away from Buffalo in the third-quarter and surprisingly stole the momentum of their regular season from the Bandits in their home arena. I believe this is where the series was won and lost.
I’m not quite sure if Buffalo underestimated its opponent or if Calgary underestimated itself. It was clear to me in the way Calgary closed out Game 1 that the Riggers were hitting full stride.
An example would be the Calgary’s transition goals that added to the undertone of the series and factored in more than Buffalo's. Captain Dan McRae tallied an important marker in the midst of Game 1. Zach Currier finished off a broken play in the second quarter to tie the score with the Bandits and was followed up by Tyler Burton’s conversion to give Calgary a 6-5 lead answering Buffalo's run.
Those heroics were answered by Matt Spanger’s tying goal at 9-9 to finish off a light showing from both squads’ transition units. Goals from Buffalo’s back end we’re sorely missing in the finals. Credit here has to be given to Calgary’s defensive plan to stop Buffalo from getting up the floor as much as it had been accustom to.
Heading into the series it was thought Buffalo may have more depth on offense and on defense. As the series evolved it was the Roughneck defenders who stymied Bandit attackers plenty of shifts while Calgary’s offense was getting face-to-face with Matt Vinc with good frequency from the onset. To add to the suspense was the amount of pipes Calgary rang up over two games.
As early as the first quarter of Game 1 the Roughnecks “O” was giving the Bandits defenders all they could handle. This theme continued throughout the two-game series. The score was locked at two at the first half of Game 1 but the quality of chances that Calgary generated could easily have led to more goals.
In Game 2, early in the second half, the Roughnecks offense was buzzing as it did in Game 1 but couldn’t get the 10th goal to fall. Buffalo answered later in the quarter with a three-goal run of its own and stemmed the tide.
The Bandits had clawed back to 9-9, 10-10, and 12-12 before Game 2 entered its final minute.
Anyone associated with the NLL or its media must have taken in the dramatic go-ahead goal by Dane Dobbie perfectly assisted by the long bomb pinpoint pass of Roughnecks tender Christian Del Bianco. One more time, the Bandits volleyed with Corey Small’s signature corner painting 6-5 goal with the final minute elapsing in regulation time.
Overtime promoted more hair being pulled out. In a mad scramble, Buffalo had 3 point-blank chances to score and push the series back to Western New York. Del Bianco lost track of his first save and while looking for it behind him Dhane Smith grabbed it on the doorstep missed on a bad angle with Calgary defender Currier doing his best backup goalie impression.
Right after, Shawn Evans collected a rebound while most Roughnecks had headed to the bench to change. Evans wisely bee-lined to the slot to rip a low corner shot around Currier who had stepped into the line of fire.
In my world as a goalie, you don’t see a tougher shot than this Evans rip and by rights the game should have ended here. Instead the Calgary netminder kicked out his left leg making the save of his life to keep his team's chances alive.
One time out and an offensive push from the Riggers resulted in a Curtis Dickson laser off the short side post to set the stage for the winner. A reset of the 30 clock had the ball with Duch up high where he swung the ball to the left side to Riley Loewen. Loewen received the pass and Dickson slid down to confuse the Bandit defenders, giving Duch some real estate to catch the return outlet and deliver the season-ending snipe. Game, set, match Calgary.
Some of the immediate comments after the series was only 60 minutes done focused on what a game like that could do to create new fans. I wholeheartedly agreed this should be an advertisement for the league.
I’ve seen or been in some exciting lacrosse games over a lifetime in the sport and this one ranked near the top for skill and drama. Physically, I’ve only seen this level of punishment in summer lacrosse series through illegal means. Every inch here was earned because not many penalties were called.
Here is where some props go to the winners. T
he inside game and invitation to the constant beat down Dane Dobbie took from San Diego to Buffalo via Colorado was massive. All three teams tried to break his bones and his spirit and failed.
At the other end, Christian Del Bianco was lights out in Game 1 and battling fearlessly in the second go round. For a 21-year-old player in such an important position at the highest level of a sport, he stands apart from anyone who has come before him at his age.
CBD’s veteran-like focus never wavered and the numbers don’t lie as he posted an .819 save percentage when it mattered the most. Doing that in the face of a legend at the other end only makes it that more impressive.
Therein lies the difference. Collectively Calgary’s defense was a slight bit better than Buffalo’s.
Both team should be lauded for a spectacular fight that went minute-by-minute even in their regular season match.
Personally I’d mention great plays by almost every player in the series but instead I’ll mention two guys who really made their mark in the finals.
Chase Fraser scored big goals when the Bandits needed a jump and his ability to get inside Calgary’s defense wasn’t matched by any others in Orange. If I’m the Philadelphia Wings I’m wishing I could wind back the clock about 11 months right now.
For Calgary, it was a gutsy effort by all but Zach Currier stood out with massive plays, allowing the Necks to stay on top of the Bandits. Key ground balls and clears plus a goal and a save were Currier highlights nullifying any momentum shifts that may have cost Calgary a different fate.
There it is. The 2019 season is a wrap but that Game 2 should be made available on Netflix! At least we have these well-done videos as a memoir.