Skip to main content
Albany FireWolves.

NLL Playoffs: Familiar Face vs. Historic Newcomer in NLL Finals

May 6, 2024
Jack Goods
National Lacrosse League

The National Lacrosse League Finals will feature a battle of New York and — despite their identical regular season records — a real David vs. Goliath matchup.

The Buffalo Bandits are looking to become the first repeat champions since 2016 and claim the franchise’s sixth crown. The Albany FireWolves, playing in their first title bout since moving to the capital region, hope to complete the fairy tale story of worst to first.

It makes for a fascinating series, one we’ll have to be patient to watch with the first matchup set for May 17.

The matchup marks the first interstate or inter-province championship duel since 1997, when Rochester and Buffalo went to battle, and is only possible thanks to the NLL’s move to unified standings this season. The Bandits are the fourth team to make four straight NLL Finals appearances. Albany is represented for the first time since the Attack in 2002.


The Rock were the class of the league this season, but they have their own version of kryptonite. Toronto lost five times all year — four to the Bandits.

By earning a third straight sweep of the Rock, the Bandits pushed their win streak against their QEW rivals to eight. The last time Toronto prevailed in a postseason matchup between the teams was 2012.

“It’s an amazing achievement, but we’ve learned our lessons in the past,” Bandits superstar forward Dhane Smith said. “We can’t be satisfied just making it to the finals.”

In Game 1, the Bandits orchestrated one of the more dominant showings you’ll ever see in a semifinal appearance with a 12-4 result. Helped by Buffalo’s sizeable defensive presence around the crease, Matt Vinc added to his postseason resume by shutting Toronto out in the first half. His performance helped power the visitors to a 5-0 lead at the break.

Toronto didn’t beat the future Hall of Fame tender for the first 39 minutes of game action, when Justin Martin cut the deficit to 6-1. That five-goal gap was the closest the Rock got the rest of the way, much to the delight of the Bandits fans who made the short trip up to Hamilton.

Game 2 more closely resembled the grudge match experts predicted, though it appeared the series was heading back to Canada in the early stages of the fourth quarter. Mark Matthews put the Rock up 8-4 with 13:28 remaining, with Buffalo on the other end failing to score for nearly 15 minutes. But then, the oft hot and cold Bandits offense turned on the juice.

Three goals beat Nick Rose in less than two minutes, with Byrne bringing Buffalo within one with 11:06 on the clock. Chase Fraser followed with back-to-back tallies — an equalizer at 8:20 and a go-ahead score at 5:39 — with a packed Banditland getting more rabid after each goal. Hardly anyone could believe it when the final seconds ticked off the clock with Buffalo up 10-8.

“It was nice to see the guys stick with it,” Bandits coach John Tavares said. “We were flat offensively all game long. They score to go ahead 8-4 and you see the heads drop a little bit on the bench there. Fraser and Tehoka [Nanticoke] pick them up with two quick ones, get us right back into the game, and guys start believing. It was just contagious after that.”

Vinc and the Bandits defense often held Toronto without a shot on possessions in the second half, shutting out the Rock in the final 13:27.

“Everyone just looked at themselves and said like, ‘We’re down, we’ve got the fourth quarter to go here. It’s time to buckle up and show what we’re made of,’” Fraser said. “That’s some Bandits lacrosse right there.”


The Albany FireWolves have sent another veteran team home wondering if changes are necessary.

A week after the youthful bunch brought up tough questions for the Halifax Thunderbirds, the FireWolves earned a surprising sweep of the championship-focused San Diego Seals. Don’t tell these guys they’re overachieving and should just be happy to be here.

“Whether they’re a rookie or a sixth- or seventh-year guy, we’ve got a lot of leadership on this team,” FireWolves captain Colton Watkinson said. “A lot of character.”

Alex Simmons continued his masterful rookie season, recording 10 points in Game 1 — the most for a first-year player in the postseason since Tavares in 1992. San Diego made the FireWolves sweat with four goals in the final three minutes, but they built enough cushion to walk away 14-12 victors with a Watkinson empty netter.

“We kept to our composure,” Simmons said. “We gave a little scare at the end, but you’ve just got to fight through those things.”

Simmons added seven more in Game 2, while fellow rookie Tye Kurtz led the way with nine points in a 13-10 final. Facing a tie at 6 in the early stages of the third quarter, Albany mounted a 5-1 run featuring a pair of power play goals to take a 11-7 advantage with 13:54 remaining.

San Diego again brought a late challenge, with Dobbie and Staats cutting the deficit to 12-10 with five minutes to work with, but the FireWolves retained poise beyond their years. The FireWolves have already won as many games in this postseason as they did all last year, and now they’ll enjoy home floor advantage in the NLL Finals.

Doug Jamieson made 78 saves across the two games, with 51 coming in Game 2. Simmons and Kurtz top the playoff scoring chart.

As for the Seals, will the aging squad shake things up in the offseason? And will Brodie Merrill come back again for another shot at that elusive title?


San Diego’s Dane Dobbie became the NLL’s all-time leader for postseason goals. … The bad blood between Buffalo and Toronto bubbled up toward the end of Game 1, with Nick Weiss and Billy Hostrawser dropping the gloves. Weiss, who was left bloodied, was honored with the Bandits’ Heavyweight Player of the Game belt. … Austin Staats will miss at least a couple games at the start of next season after receiving a match penalty for his unnecessary and frustration-driven cross check to the face of Anthony Joaquim with 11 seconds remaining in Game 2. Receiving a match penalty in the final game of the year is an automatic two-game suspension.


All times EST

Game 1

May 17, 7 p.m. in Albany

Game 2

May 18, 7:30 p.m. in Buffalo

Game 3 (if necessary)

May 24, 7 p.m. in Albany