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The Bandits were 5-6 on March 1, the first time the franchise was under .500 that late into the season since 2018.

How the Buffalo Bandits Got Their Swagger Back

May 17, 2024
Jack Goods
Mike Hitzel / NLL

It was an unfamiliar feeling for this crop of Buffalo Bandits. As they sat in the visiting locker room of Vancouver’s Rogers Arena following a 13-12 loss to the Warriors on March 1, players had to come to terms with their 5-6 record — the first time the franchise was under .500 that late into the season since 2018.

“I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t pretty,” Bandits general manager and assistant coach Steve Dietrich said. “That night there was lots of grumbling, lots of guys that were upset. But they took it upon themselves to turn it around. I told them when we met that Wednesday, ‘The cavalry isn’t coming, fellas. We have enough in this room to put things together to turn this season around.’”

Yet in some ways, the cavalry did eventually come. Dietrich remedied the Bandits’ faceoff struggles days later when he signed the gregarious Connor Farrell and followed by adding an established defensive presence at the trade deadline in Paul Dawson. Then came the surprise return of Adam Bomberry from injury, and the further emergence of rookies like Zack Belter and Cam Wyers.

Piece by piece, the Bandits were reconstructed into a championship roster. Thanks to midseason tinkering, they have the chance to defend their title with a matchup against the Albany FireWolves — Buffalo’s fourth straight appearance in the NLL Finals. Game one is set for Friday night in Albany, with Game two to follow Saturday in Buffalo.

If a Game three is necessary, the battle for New York will take place in the state’s capital.

“Coming in at the halfway point of the year, all the talk was that they weren’t the same team they had been the last couple years,” Dawson said. “But this is still a very good team. There was still a belief that this was a good team that could do some damage. I don’t think the confidence ever wavered in the room.”

Each step of the offseason, Dietrich passed on adding to his defense. Fresh off a stellar performance in last season’s run to the title, Buffalo possessed a strong core with the likes of Steve Priolo, Bryce Sweeting, Ian MacKay, Nick Weiss and Bomberry.

“Going into free agency, we thought we’d be OK,” Dietrich said. “At the draft, we still thought we were OK, so we really didn’t address much. And then you get the call — Bomber is out, and Sweets is out, and we didn’t think either one would be back.”

That reality led to what Dietrich calls the toughest season he’s experienced in this era of Bandits history. Heading into the NLL Finals, 14 defensemen have suited up for the Bandits at some point: Belter, Bomberry, Frank Brown, Emerson Clark, Dawson, Sam La Roue, Justin Martin, Carter McKenzie, Priolo, Dylan Robinson, Justin Robinson, Matt Spanger, Dalton Sulver and Wyers. That’s before mentioning transition players like MacKay and Weiss, who were stretched even further while on faceoff duty prior to Farrell’s arrival.

“I became really close with Ian MacKay, so he was messaging me, and Josh Byrne was messaging me, ‘We need your help,’” Farrell said.

Consistency was hard to find early on, but opportunities were plenty.

“Probably in the long run it will be better for us,” Dietrich said. “It gave guys like Cam Wyers, Dylan Robinson, Zack Belter, guys like that, it gave them an opportunity to play in situations that they probably weren’t ready for. They had to roll with the punches.”

And punches did come, including an opening loss to Albany and a three-game skid that resulted in the nadir in Vancouver.

In time, Buffalo was able to right size playing time and get back to the team’s signature style of defense. By the semifinals, Toronto could barely get shots to future Hall of Fame goalie Matt Vinc, let alone past him.

“The way we play our man short, the two guys at the back, it takes unbelievable courage,” Dietrich said. “Last year, Bryce Sweeting and Ethan O’Connor did such a great job in essence being two other goaltenders. Matt expects you to stand in those lanes, and when you’re in that lane, Matt expects you not to move. … Paul has come in and done a phenomenal job. When you see him blocking shots and actually trying to save the ball, it trickles down to everybody else.”

Viewers may wonder why every team doesn’t mimic the Bandits by packing the defense as close to the crease as possible. It’s easier said than done.

“Obviously I was a goalie for my whole life, so it’s always been a bit of second nature to see a ball and jump in front of it,” Dawson said. “The way we play defense, you have to want to do that or our system is not going to be successful. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. Taking a shot off the leg or taking a shot off the face doesn’t seem like that big of a deal if it doesn’t get to Vino or we’re winning games.”

Buffalo is 9-1 since Farrell’s signing and 8-1 since the Dawson trade. The defense has gone from allowing nearly 13 goals per game to under nine. Farrell is winning 52 percent of his draws, a major improvement from a winning percentage that sat in the mid-30s prior to his arrival.

Dietrich isn’t one to take credit. He points to head coach John Tavares and his leadership group for turning the ship around.

“When we were 5-6 after being in the previous three finals, it would have been easy to say, ‘This isn’t our year. It is what it is,’” Dietrich said. “‘We’ll get a longer summer and come on back next year.’ But they refused to quit.”

And now, as Dietrich put it, they’re back where they’re supposed to be.

“With the talent on this team, I think the belief was always there,” Farrell said. “We just had to get the swagger back.”