NLL Final Game 3 Preview: It's Winner-Take-All for the Title


For only the second time in National Lacrosse League history, the championship series has come down to a winner-take-all Game 3.

Don’t expect that to change how either the Buffalo Bandits or Colorado Mammoth approach this weekend, though.

“We’re going to prepare the same way we’ve done all year,” Colorado’s Robert Hope said. “The stakes are a little bit higher, but we’re going to stick to our gameplan that’s been successful all year.”

His fellow captain on the other side of the floor echoed those sentiments.

“We’ve got to approach it the exact same way we approached this,” Buffalo’s Steve Priolo said following Game 2 in Denver. “We have a week now to prepare, and we’ve got to fix the mistakes. I thought we made a lot of good adjustments on defense. … We kept them to 11. Maybe next time, we keep them to less.”

The Bandits and Mammoth will square off on Saturday at 8 p.m. in front of a sold-out crowd of over 19,000 at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center (ESPNU, ESPN+, TSN), marking the first time a Game 3 of the NLL Finals has been needed since 2018. The Saskatchewan Rush won their third title in four years that season by knocking off the Rochester Knighthawks.

The other four series have been sweeps since the NLL made the move to a best-of-three format in 2015, including last season, when Calgary sent the Bandits home disappointed.

Now, Buffalo hopes to secure hardware on its home floor just like the Rush did. The Bandits have been pushed to the limit by a shorthanded Mammoth group, but that should make a championship that much more rewarding if the league’s top seed is able to complete the job.

That is, if you take Derek Keenan’s word for it.

“It wasn’t easy, but that makes it sweeter,” Keenan said following the 2018 title, his third as the Rush head coach. “I felt good about this opportunity to be at home for Game 3, and we took advantage of that. It was a grinder of a game, but I think we maybe had a little more gas in the tank. I really believe we earned this.”

Colorado is used to being in this position given the Mammoth’s playoff journey. In the first round, the group went on the road to upset a Calgary franchise that has historically dominated the head-to-head series. They faced another winner-take-all road game in the West Finals, upending San Diego after the Seals forced a Game 3.

And last week, down two of its top offensive players in Ryan Lee and Eli McLaughlin, Colorado once again responded with its back against the wall. A five-goal run to close the game cemented an 11-8 comeback triumph.

The Mammoth are built for this.

“We don’t necessarily like it,” Mammoth coach Pat Coyle said with a laugh. “We would rather be playing [in Denver], because it was obvious how in the fourth quarter [of Game 2] how we fed off our fans. That’s honestly one of the best atmospheres I’ve been in here. But we just try to play the same way no matter where we are. We’re ready to go. It’s one game for the NLL championship, so we’ll play wherever you tell us to play for that opportunity.”

For Buffalo, this marks the first time it’s been at risk of a series defeat since doubling up the Albany FireWolves 10-5 in the team’s playoff opener. That doesn’t mean the Bandits haven’t been challenged. Both games in the East Finals against Toronto were one-goal affairs, and Game 1 against the Mammoth was, too. A last-minute tally from Nick Weiss was needed to take the early series lead in the Finals.

“Every game has been like that,” Priolo said. “It starts with that first game against Albany. It’s literally win or go home. That’s the mentality that we’ve had.”

Lee remains out for the Mammoth, with McLaughlin’s status up in the air after being placed on injured reserve prior to Game 2. Others have stepped up in the pair’s absence. Zed Williams has 15 points so far this series, while Connor Robinson has 14.

In Game 2, Colorado got six points from Brett McIntyre and four each from Chris Wardle, Tyson Gibson, Dylan Kinnear and Robinson.

Meanwhile, the stingy Mammoth defense held a high-powered Bandits offense to just two goals in the second half.

“We’ve got to make sure we possess the ball more, that we don’t accept shooting the ball from the outside like we did [in Game 2],” Bandits coach John Tavares said.

Colorado has won two of three against the Bandits on the season, with both wins coming at home. Each team is looking for its first championship in over a decade. The Mammoth’s only title came against the Bandits in 2006, while Buffalo won its fourth two years later.


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