The Buffalo Bandits must win on the road to keep their season and hopes for a championship alive.
"We seem to answer well after losses through the year," forward Josh Byrne said, "so we’re just looking for another opportunity to bounce back here."
The Bandits are facing elimination after Dane Dobbie scored three second-half goals to help the Calgary Roughnecks storm to a 10-7 victory in the first game of the best-of-three National Lacrosse League finals on Saturday night at KeyBank Center. Game 2 is scheduled for May 25 in Calgary. Game 3, if necessary, is May 31 in Buffalo.
The East Division champion Bandits (16-5), who finished the regular season with the best record in the league, have to win the next two games to capture their fifth league title and first in 11 years. Buffalo hasn't lost consecutive games all season. The Roughnecks (13-8) have a 6-4 record at home this season.
"I feed off of the hostility," Bandits captain Steve Priolo said about the prospect of having to win in Calgary, "just the way I feed off of our fans pumping us up, so I think something that we can do carrying forward is pushing that ball a little more, maybe a little bit earlier. … Maybe look for a faster-paced game."
Buffalo trailed Calgary, 9-4, with 10:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, but scored three consecutive goals, two by Byrne and one by Chase Fraser, to pull within 9-7 with 5:35 to play.
The Bandits came no closer, disappointing the announced crowd of 13,747 fans.
Byrne and Corey Small each scored twice to lead Buffalo. Rhys Duch added a pair of goals for Calgary.
Christian Del Bianco stopped 48 of 55 shots for the West Division champion Roughnecks, while Matt Vinc stopped 32 of 41 shots for Buffalo.
"Thank goodness for our defense and Del Bianco to keep us in it," Duch said.
Shawn Evans gave the Bandits a 3-2 lead with 10:44 to play in the third quarter. But that advantage lasted just 42 seconds.
Calgary scored seven of the next eight goals, beginning with Dan MacRae tying the score at 3-3 with 10:02 remaining in the third.
Curtis Dickson gave Calgary a 4-3 lead from close range, sneaking a shot between Vinc and the right post with 4:15 to play in the third, and Buffalo trailed the rest of the game.
"I think we kind of got away from our game plan a little bit," Byrne said. "We were clogging the middle the entire time and there was not enough space between us. The good thing, though, is those are fixable things and we’re going to take care of that."
Dobbie, the league’s leading scorer, pushed the Calgary advantage to 5-3 with 9.7 seconds left in the third quarter and scored his second goal, increasing the visitors' advantage to 6-3, just 34 seconds into the fourth.
Small scored his second goal of the game on the power play a minute later to cut Buffalo's deficit to 6-4. But the Bandits' comeback was stymied when Ethan O’Connor had a goal waved off because his foot appeared to be in the crease. A replay was upheld due to inconclusive evidence.
"I agree that there was probably not enough evidence to overturn," Bandits co-head coach John Tavares said. "I’m just depressed by that call. That’s a really tight call to make at that point of the game. It was obviously a two-goal swing and seemed to be the turning point in the game."
Calgary scored the next three goals.
Seconds later, Dobbie scored again, giving the Roughnecks a 7-4 lead with 12:38 remaining.
"He’s tough when he gets time and space," Priolo said, "and he’s got athletes around him that can get him that time and space, and that’s what we need to adjust to. That was the difference. He sees the floor well when we’re not on him, so we’ve got to find a way to be on him."
Jesse King and Dan Taylor added goals 45 seconds apart to push Calgary’s lead to 9-4 with 10:13 to play.
Mitch Wilde stemmed Buffalo's late three-goal rally by scoring the final goal on an empty net with 1:26 left. He was injured after crashing into the boards.
The late offensive eruption by both teams was in stark contrast to the first half.
The score was tied 2-2 at intermission, with Duch scoring twice for the Roughnecks. Duch opened the scoring on a long shot with 6:25 remaining in the first quarter, but Small tied the score at 1-1 with a point-blank shot about five minutes later.
Dhane Smith gave the Bandits a 2-1 lead with 5:21 remaining in the first half, but the advantage was short-lived. Duch knotted the score at 2-2 with 2:07 left in the half.
"After that first half, you could tell goals were going to be a premium in the second half," Small said. "They got a couple-goal run there, and offensively we had to do a better job of scoring in bunches and we didn’t really do that."
The Bandits last reached the finals in 2016, when they lost to Saskatchewan in two games. Buffalo missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons, but the team has surged under first-year co-head coaches Tavares and Rich Kilgour, two of the franchise's all-time greatest players.
Calgary is in the finals for the first time since 2014, when the Roughnecks lost in three games to the Rochester Knighthawks, who won their third consecutive title. Calgary last won the championship in 2009, defeating the New York Titans in the title game.
The Bandits defeated the Roughnecks, 12-10, in their only previous meeting this season, on Feb. 16 in Buffalo.