For the first time in more than 10 years, the Buffalo Bandits will be playing championship lacrosse Saturday.
Game 1 of the NLL Championship series kicks off as Buffalo plays host to West Division champion Calgary at the KeyBank Center at 7:30 p.m.
The last time the Bandits made it to the title game, they defeated the now-defunct Portland Lumberjax, 14-13.
John Tavares logged two goals and two assists that night; his teammate Rich Kilgour had a shot and scooped up one loose ball.
This time, both men will be on the sidelines as co-head coaches, looking to put the finishing touch on their first season at the helm — a Champion’s Cup.
“It’s really unbelievable to go from two years missing the playoffs to being in the finals. It’s very surreal,” Kiolgour told Bandits.com Friday.
Bandits fans might get a sense of déjà vu as the series begins.
After all, it’s not the first time Calgary and Buffalo have met in the title game; the Roughnecks won their first league championship over the Bandits in 2004.
Calgary defeated Colorado to make the championship that year, just as it did this year. Meanwhile, Buffalo beat Toronto, 12-10, to win the East Division this season — just as it did in 2004.
Buffalo will have to hope the similarities end there. The team already downed Calgary, 12-10, on Feb. 16.
The Bandits are 7-4 all-time against Calgary and have won the past two matchups against the Roughnecks.
Like Buffalo, Calgary returns to the league finals after a brief drought. The Roughnecks’ last title appearance came in 2014, when they were defeated by Rochester, two games to one.
Calgary’s playoff appearance last year ended in the semifinal round with a 15-13 loss to Saskatchewan.
If there’s one Calgary player for Bandits fans to keep an eye on, it’s Dane Dobbie. The forward was a rookie when the Bandits hoisted their last championship trophy. Now, the 32-year-old is one of the most dangerous scoring threats in all of professional lacrosse.
Dobbie led the league in the regular season with 115 points. His 47 goals were one shy of first place in the league; New England’s Callum Crawford had 48.
The veteran has five goals in the postseason so far, three of which came in the opening round against San Diego. He also has dished out eight assists for 13 points.
Alongside Dobbie is another veteran in Curtis Dickson, who recorded his 100th career postseason point against Colorado on May 11. He notched 81 points in the regular season and has six goals this postseason.
Outside those two, though, Calgary’s offense can be described as “pedestrian.”
The team finished the regular season with 212 goals, tied for seventh in the league with Rochester, and logged 536 points. It’s on defense that the Riggers shine. Calgary held teams to single-digits eight times in the regular season.
A big reason for this stands between the pipes. Goalie Christian Del Bianco led the league in the regular season with 716 saves, 11 more than Buffalo’s MVP, Matt Vinc (705).
InsideLacrosse.com’s Marty O’Neill, who played for the Bandits in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, praised the 21-year-old’s remarkable athleticism and field vision last November, calling him a “top-3 goalie in the league.”
Buffalo was able to get the best of Del Bianco in the teams’ first encounter in February as an 8-6 Calgary lead was erased.
The Bandits’ plethora of scorers will look to get off to a faster start this time around.
“Our offense is scoring from everybody. There’s Small, Dhane, Fraser, Byrnzy, myself, so it’s spread out scoring,” said Buffalo’s Shawn Evans on Bandits.com.
“When you’re getting that, then who do you cover?”
Power-plays might become an important part of the series. Buffalo’s Corey Small led the league in the regular season with 14 power-play goals. He has three power-play tallies this postseason.
One of Calgary’s biggest advantages this season has come on the man-advantage.
The Roughnecks have only allowed one power-play goal on eight attempts, while they’ve scored on 9-of-12 chances.
If Buffalo can keep the penalties down (the Bandits have been assessed 30 penality minutes this postseason), its offense should be potent enough to crack the Roughnecks’ defenses.
If the team can’t get it done, the Bandits will get another chance in Game 2, set for May 25 in Calgary.