BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Losing the in the NLL Finals last season still stings; Dhane Smith isn’t going to convince you otherwise.
“I mean it seems like just yesterday we were playing in the finals. It’s one of those things that obviously you really don’t ever get over like a loss like that but we’re fortunate enough to get back on the floor and hopefully bring a championship to Buffalo,” Smith told News 4 Sports on a zoom call.
But this year’s Buffalo Bandits have a new idea in mind when it comes to finally getting over the hump of winning their first championship since 2008.
“I think last year in the playoffs they were calling the game a little bit differently, it was a little bit rougher, our offense wasn’t really prepared for that so we brought in some bigger bodies to kind of free up space. They might not be the biggest names in the NLL but that being said they’re role players and they play their role really well. I think that could help us,” Smith explained.
The Bandits finished 14-4 in the regular season as the top team in the league to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They beat Albany in the first round, swept Toronto in the East Conference Finals, and fell short to Colorado, two games to one in the NLL Finals. The Bandits lost game three at home, 10-8.
So the team took time in the off-season to examine how such a dynamic team with some of the top players in the league, could have lost the title. It seems like they found some kind of answer and how to use that moving forward this season.
“I looked at the big picture, obviously last year we had an awesome offense like we had so many goal scorers, so many talented guys who at any night could be their night. Obviously we kind of fell short and you look in the mirror and you’re just like why is that and we’re kind of taking a different approach this year where we’re taking players that are maybe not goal scorers but will pick up the loose balls, do the dirty work, get other guys open and I wanna say we didn’t really have that last year,” Smith explained.
“We had guys where yes, we could put the ball in the net and we all wanted to put the ball in the net and we all wanted to set each other up and stuff like that but it obviously, didn’t pan out and we’re taking a different approach this year and I’m excited to see what comes of it.”
The Bandits put those thoughts into action signing Brandon Robinson, Brad McCulley, Nathaniel Kozevnikov and Sam La Roue which the roster has all of them listed at at least 6’1″ and 200 pounds which should bring physicality and a big-bodied presence, Dhane mentioned.
“We’ve had such a talented offense and a talented defense and stuff like that but when it comes to the little things we all were very similar and sometimes we kind of just ran into each other and I think you look at the teams that have been winning and they have a good mix,” Smith said.
In 2019, the Bandits finished in similar fashion to last year, going 14-4 in the regular season, ending as the top team in the league but still lost in the NLL Finals. So in addition to adding those new pieces that should help on the floor, the Bandits are taking a new mental approach as well.
“In the playoffs it’s a totally different game it’s one of those games that teams that are most prepared but the teams that gel at the right time. I think this year we’re gonna go game by game and not really worry too much about our record right off the hop. I’ve been a part of teams that we’ve gelled at the right time, down the stretch, and I’ve won a championship that way so it all depends,” Smith said.
While the Bandits lost Amherst native Connor Fields to the expansion draft, this core group is still very much in tact with guys like Tehoka Nanticoke, Chris Cloutier, Nick Weiss, captain Steve Priolo, Josh Byrne and of course Smith back for another season.
And you can’t forget about Matt Vinc in net.
“You know if you have a guy like Matt you’re gonna be a competitive team, you’re gonna be one of those teams that are gonna be fighting for a playoff spot, even a championship. Like he brings you over the top, you can’t take it for granted. I think that’s one thing I would tell rookies because you never have goalies like this come around too often and we don’t really know how many years he has left in him,” Smith said.
“So realistically we need to win now and I think this is a great opportunity.”
The Bandits open the season this Saturday, December 3rd at KeyBank Center. Face-off is set for 7 p.m.
Heather Prusak is a sports reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of her work here.