Heroes of league championship seasons in Buffalo sports are few and far between. There's Mike Stratton of the 1964 Bills, John Tavares of the 1993 Bandits, or Bob Sadowski of the 1961 Bisons Little World Series champions.
If he can help the Stampede finish the job tonight against the Portland Rage in the Aud (7:30), has any Buffalo athlete had a greater championship run than John Vecchiarelli?
All season, the strength of coach Chris McSorley's team was its balance
and depth of talent all through the roster. The playoffs, however, have become Vecchiarelli's personal stage.
Vecchiarelli leads all playoff scorers with 22 goals and 16 assists for 38 points in eight games. He has 14 goals and 20 points this week alone.
Buffalo goes for the series clincher against a Portland team that came from well back in the pack to make the finals as Western Conference playoff champion.
If the Stampede wins the 48-minute regulation game, the series is over. If the Rage evens the series, the issue will be decided in a 12-minute mini-game to follow. A best-of-five shootout will be used if either game should end in a tie.
Stampede officials were predicting a club record crowd for the title game. The club announced attendance of 10,237 for the regular-season home finale against Philadelphia.
Overall league championships are rare in Buffalo sports history. Stratton's memorable hit on San Diego's Keith Lincoln is the best-remembered play in the Bills' American Football League victory.
Tavares scored in sudden death in Philadelphia to give the Bandits their first Major Indoor Lacrosse League crown in 1992.
The light-hitting Sadowski hit three home runs to power the Bisons over Louisville in the 1961 Little World Series.
Vecchiarelli has been brilliant throughout the Stampede playoff run, but the 30-year Toronto native outdid his earlier play this week with two 10-point games. In Wednesday night's 11-8 victory in the series opener at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, Vecchiarelli had a hand in all but one of Buffalo's goals, scoring seven and assisting on three.
That matched his 10-point output Monday night in Minneapolis, where he scored four goals and picked up one assist in the regulation victory over the Minnesota Arctic Blast and added three goals and two assists in the decisive mini-game.
Wednesday night's victory was a patented Stampede performance -- build a big lead, watch most of it disappear, then hang on at the end.
It's a pattern the Stampede has followed on several occasions at home as well as on the road.
In Portland, McSorley's team took a 9-5 lead into the fourth quarter, then saw the Rage creep to within a goal before icing it on goals by Vecchiarelli and Alex Hicks in the final minute.
The ability to turn it on when needed is reassuring, but McSorley has found it maddening at times. He'd prefer his team go for the kill when it has an opponent down.
The Stampede was able to take ad vantage of a weary Portland team in the opener. The Rage was playing its third game in three nights. Coach John Black's team has had a day to regroup and prepare a last-ditch effort.
The Rage (11-10-1) finished fourth in the Northwest Division of RHI, and 12 of the 16 playoff teams had more regular-season points than Portland's 23.
In the playoffs, though, Black's team found itself. First it upset regular season division champion Vancouver, 8-7, at home in a shootout. Then it routed the Voodoo, 14-8, in Vancouver to clinch the series.
In the next round, Portland won, 10-6 at home, then lost in Calgary, 8-7. In the mini-game on Calgary's home court, though, the Rage took a 2-1 victory to capture the series.
This week, the Rage ousted defending champion Anaheim, 10-7 and 11-7.
"Portland has a lot of skill," McSorley said. "They found their groove in the playoffs."
The Stampede learned first hand about Gerry St. Cyr in the opener. The Portland forward scored four goals and had three assists, but his performance was overshadowed by Vecchiarelli.
Formerly property of the NHL Ottawa Senators, St. Cyr (16-17-33) is second to Vecchiarelli in playoff scoring. During the regular season, he was the fifth-leading scorer in RHI.
Brian Downey, who had two goals for the Rage in the opener, is third in playoff scoring.
The Stampede kept Chris Valicevic in check in the first game. The Michigan native who played at NCAA Division III St. Mary's (Mich.) College, had two assists but no goals. He was the Western Conference scoring leader, third in RHI overall, in the regular season with 75 points, including 25 goals.
The Stampede has already collected $136,080 in earnings (about $9,000 a man) for getting this far. Another $56,000 is at stake tonight. A Buffalo victory would give the Stampede players $13,720 per man for the season.
Both the Stampede and the Rage were involved in mini-game victories during the playoffs. The mini-game was needed to decide four series in RHI playoffs.