As the clock wound down Saturday night on the Buffalo Bandits’ victory over the New England Black Wolves, the two biggest smiles in a First Niagara Center that was filled with them belonged to Anthony Cosmo and Chad Culp.
They were the ones who have been waiting the longest to play in a National Lacrosse League championship series. And their multiple-year waits came to an end when the Bandits’ 20-15 win was complete.
“I’m tickled to death,” said Cosmo, who was a backup goalie for Toronto but never played a playoff minute for the Rock teams that won NLL titles in 2002 and 2003. “That’s a big monkey off my back. It wasn’t my best game, but the team in front of me bailed me out.”
“I wish I had done it a lot sooner,” Culp said about the trip to the finals. “I tell the younger guys that chances like this don’t come along very often.”
The chance is here now. Buffalo won its first NLL East playoff championship since 2008, and will begin the best-of-three final at home against defending champion Saskatchewan on Saturday night.
“I feel good for them,” said Bandits coach Troy Cordingley. “Chad Culp is a guy who is about 5-9, 170 pounds, and he’s been banging bodies out there. He plays with grit and never complains. ... Anthony has been a top goalie for about 15 years.”
The victory delighted the 14,255 in attendance, perhaps because it was so hard-fought. Buffalo had to earn its second and clinching victory of the series an inch at a time, as the Black Wolves matched the Bandits’ ferocious determination for most of the game.
“That’s a battle,” Cordingley said about the machup. “It’s why this is the best game of all. Both teams did whatever it took to win.”
“It was back and forth all night long,” Culp said. “We were trading leads all night. We’d get one or two, and they’d come back. The final score didn’t reflect what sort of game it was.”
The tone was set right from the start. The Bandits scored two goals within the first three minutes, but the Black Wolves had the game’s next four goals to take the lead. It took a three-goal run by Buffalo just to get the game to 9-9 at halftime.
“We talked at halftime about it being 9-9, even though we weren’t playing well,” Cordingley said. “We weren’t real smart at times, so it was a good thing it was still tied. We knew they were getting a lot of uncontested shots.”
The drama continued throughout the third quarter. Buffalo and New England combined for nine straight goals, and neither team had two in a row. It was 14-13, Buffalo, with a period to go – anyone’s game.
It was the Bandits who took it. Culp’s score gave Buffalo a two-goal lead, and then Ryan Benesch’s two straight goals started a 5-1 run.
In a game in which the nets almost seemed to be bigger than usual, Cosmo saved his best work for the last. He had several spectacular saves that gave Buffalo time to crank up its offense and pull away.
“It seemed for a while like the ball just was going in all the time,” Cosmo said. “You have those nights sometimes.”
The scoresheet reflected the big night by the offense. Dhane Smith had four goals and five assists, while Benesch and Alex Kedow Hill had seven. Mark Steenhuis added five points, and Culp had four.
“You want your top players to be your top players, but sometimes the game comes down to the other lines,” Smith said. “Chad was unbelievable, and Mark has been great all year for us.”
Now comes the tough part, as the Bandits will face the defending champs, no less.
“That’s been our goal all year, starting in training camp on Nov. 27,” Cordingley said about reaching the final. “There’s been lots of hard work and lots of sacrifices. It’s good, but there’s a lot of work to go.”